Tough Balancing Act for Judges Weighing Jail COVID Risk and Public Safety

By Angel Valdez Ordoñez                    

DUBLIN, CA – As Judge Colin Bowen moved through cases last week here in Alameda County Superior Court, Dept. 702, it was clear that the issue of public safety clashed with health when multiple defense attorneys requested their clients be released due to the COVID-19 pandemic.                    

It’s not uncommon for defense attorneys to express  similar sentiments when motioning for the release of their clients, noting clients’ clean prior records, the risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 in crowded jails, and the nature of their clients’ arrests as support for bail or no bail release.        

When faced with requests for releasing defendants, Judge Bowen remained calm and clearly articulated his concerns with public safety and violent crimes as well as the seriousness of the continued pandemic, noting that it was a “fragile issue.”            

When Defense Attorney Andrea Brown asked the judge to consider releasing her client, defendant Eric Perkins, the request was met with a stern objection from the prosecution.    

The prosecution attorney noted the severity of the defendant’s crime as a “violent case of domestic abuse…in the presence of their (defendant and partner’s) three-week-old baby.”

Judge Bowen talked about the struggle between public safety and public health, recognizing that COVID-19 remains a severe threat in spaces like jails and prisons while noting that the violent nature of the crime reflects a potential threat to public safety. 

After moments of silence and tension, Judge Bowen refused the release request in the interest of the safety of the public and the victim of the crime.

Another defendant, Carl Williams, also requested release. His representing attorney stated that Williams was a co-defendant in a case where the arresting officers were not looking for Williams, but his co-defendant. When the vehicle that Williams was in was stopped, Williams was arrested for possession of ammunition. 

“His (defendant’s) continued incarceration would pose an unjustifiable risk on his health and safety,” stated a defense attorney who was requesting bail and release of defendant Carl Williams.    

His attorney stated that Williams’ age as a 56-year-old placed him at a higher risk of having a severe reaction to COVID-19, but Judge Bowen prioritized public safety as he noted the possession of violent paraphernalia.

However, some requests for release were complex and required debate before the judge made a decision. Representing Defendant Juan Marcos Porras, Defense Attorney Brown asked the court to consider releasing Porras.

“The situation had no threats of violence, just a violation of a restraining order,” Brown spoke of Porras’ situation. According to the court, the defendant had become intoxicated and had violated a restraining order by standing outside the home of the individual. Although no interaction occurred, Porras was detained for violation of the restraining order.

As Brown expressed the non-violent nature of the situation, the prosecution requested that protection for the individual and their residence be established if Porras was to be released on bail.

After assessing the complexity of the situation, Judge Bowen agreed to set bail at $1,000 and allow for Porras’ release.

Given the continued severity of the COVID-19 pandemic inside of prisons and jails, Judge Bowen – like other superior court judges – also face a continuing balancing act, weighing the health and safety of officers, jail staff, and those detained with the safety of the public. 

Angel Valdez Ordoñez is a court watch reporter for The Vanguard at Berkeley. He is a third-year student at UC Berkeley majoring in Sociology and Social Welfare with a minor in Gender and Women’s Studies hoping to pursue a career in anti-discrimination law. Angel is from Santa Barbara, California.

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About The Author

Koda is an incoming senior at UC Berkeley, majoring in Philosophy and minoring in Rhetoric. He is from Ventura, CA.

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