by Elina Lingappa
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Public Defender Mano Raju revealed San Francisco County jails are illegally keeping individuals in jail past any acceptable date, causing a discussion of the longstanding problem in the San Francisco justice system which has been exponentially exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The conditions of defendants being held pretrial is dismal, mostly in compliance with COVID-19 safety precautions, Raju said.
Public Defender Raju reported that his clients, along with other individuals facing charges, are being held with “no family visits, no programming, 23-24 hours a day in their cell, and no yard time,” even comparing it to a maximum security prison.
Much of this backlog is due to COVID-related court closure, leading to a courtroom shortage. According to Raju, while 12 courts have capacity for socially distanced trials, only four are in use.
The county does have four “satellite” courtrooms designed for trials conducted remotely, but these are not used for separate trials but instead an extension of another courtroom to permit proper distancing essentially occupying two courtrooms with a single tial.
When Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency, the courts adopted a set of emergency rules for the pandemic. Emergency Rules 3 and 5 allows for remote appearances to court, including in criminal cases, as long as the defendant gives their permission.
However, according to Raju, all four of these courts are almost always empty.
While neighboring counties, such as Contra Costa and Sacramento, have seen more than 100 live in-person criminal trials, and thousands of pretrial hearings—seen on livestreams—in the past year, Raju continued, San Francisco county saw only 10 trials.
These counties have also taken action to utilize other venues for socially-distanced trials, such as convention centers or fairgrounds.
However, San Francisco County does not even have documentation of attempting to find alternative venues, despite receiving adequate emergency funding to do so.
District Attorney Chesa Boudin is attempting to mitigate this backlog by prioritizing the clearest cases, as covered by the SF Chronicle.
“If the case is still provable, then move it forward aggressively. And if it’s not for any reason, then we should reevaluate our settlement position or consider dismissal,” he told the Chronicle. “I wish I could tell you when COVID was going to end, courts were going to open back up, and we’d have full access to our courthouse, full access to witnesses we need… but I can’t tell you when that’s going to happen.”
DA Boudin’s approach will hopefully decrease the staggering number of people waiting in jail pretrial.
According to KTVU, there are 814 people in San Francisco jails currently, and 680 people – or 85 percent – are unsentenced and awaiting trial.
However, it is becoming increasingly evident that COVID has only worsened a pre-existing issue in San Francisco Court, said DA Boudin, noting to KTVU, “It’s a longstanding problem in San Francisco.”
DA Boudin inherited a 5,000 case backlog when he took office in 2019, months before the beginning of the pandemic. Worse even, one in five of these cases were over two years old.
According to KTVU, San Francisco only completes 43 percent of felony cases in under a year, a stark contrast with the statewide trend of 80 percent of trials completed within 12 months.
“A backlog isn’t a reason to keep a human being in jail for a single day—let alone well over 100 people in jail for months under lockdown conditions. “Nor is COVID-19 an excuse for the cruelty and bureaucratic inertia. We must do better,” PD Raju said.
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