After months of coronavirus closures, courts across Maryland are tentatively set to begin reopening June 8.
But that date is not set in stone, and even if courts do start to reopen then, it will be well into the summer before jury trials resume, judicial leaders told lawmakers during a Maryland Senate hearing Thursday morning of the pandemic’s impact on the state’s courts and criminal justice system.
Even when more regular court activity starts back up, courts are facing a potential surge of backlogged cases to clear.
Since Maryland courts were closed to the public and a pause on jury trials was ordered in mid-March, courts have moved to remote technology to continue holding hearings for plea agreements, sentencings, bail reviews and other types of hearings.
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Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, the chief judge of the court of appeals, said June 8 is the current projected date for reopening the courts.
“Even if that day holds, I can assure you, this does not mean that Monday, June 8, will be business as usual for the Maryland judiciary,” Barbera told lawmakers.
She said the reopening would come in phases and would include restructuring courthouses to incorporate social distancing.
“We have a long way to go before we see the end of this pandemic,” Barbera said.
Since the courts’ activity was curtailed, “enormous” dockets of protective order cases have piled up — all with hearings scheduled within days of the court’s proposed June 8 reopening, said Maryland state Sen. Susan Lee, who represents part of Montgomery County.
Judge John P. Morrissey, the chief of Maryland’s district court system, said most of the cases have “placeholder dates” for now, and the courts are working on plans to stagger cases and other ways to handle the influx of cases.
“We are literally mapping out our courthouses to figure out how many people we can put in a courtroom and still comply with social distancing,” Morrissey said.
Even with a soft opening June 8, it will be at least six weeks before jury trials can resume, said Judge Laura Ripken, of Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, who chairs the conference of circuit court judges.
Mimi Teehan, with the Maryland State Bar Association, told lawmakers her group is concerned with the backlog of criminal trials.
“Attorneys are asking, you know, what the summer is going to look like, what we need to do in order to make sure that our calendars are set to accommodate the court reopening,” Teehan said.
She added that lawyers are also concerned about social distancing measures and how they will impact their ability to confer with clients in private.
“I’m sure everyone can envision an image that they’ve seen where an attorney is sitting next to a client, asking for the court’s indulgence, covering a microphone and leaning in to have a hushed conversation to make sure that the conversation is private,” Teehan said. “That will definitely be a challenge to engage in that kind of privileged communications while also practicing social distancing.”
Paul DeWolfe, Maryland’s State Public Defender, also sounded a note of alarm about the extended pause on trials.
“The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to speedy trial. Currently, there are no trials, let alone speedy trials,” DeWolfe said. “Without a certain trial date, clients feel pressured to plead guilty as the only means to release from custody. If the plea offer does not result in a short sentence, the only choice for those in detain is to languish in jail and wait for an uncertain trial date.”
DeWolfe said the biggest concern of defense attorneys is lack of access to incarcerated clients.
“Solutions vary greatly. Some jails allow phone calls. Some allow noncontact visits behind a glass screen. Some allow videoconferencing, and we are quite frankly having a difficult time accessing our clients at all,” DeWolfe said.
He told lawmakers there should be videoconferencing capabilities for all attorney visits at all facilities across the state.
Montgomery Co. prosecutor: Ankle monitors ‘preciously limited’
Along with the pause in normal court activity, the response to COVID-19 has included steps to limit and reduce the number of inmates at state and local facilities.
Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy told the Senate committee that his office has taken steps to reduce the number of people being detained in the county’s three jail facilities.
As of March 1, there were 706 prisoners in the county’s jails. In all of March and April, another 487 people were arrested. However, instead of having 1,200 people currently incarcerated, the numbers is down to 549, McCarthy said.
In part, the numbers are down through pretrial release of some defendants, he said.
McCarthy added that there’s also been an “avalanche” of filings from defense attorneys asking judges to reconsider sentences, “to take a second look at prisoners who are in jail now, that in light of the pandemic maybe should be released.”
He said his office has faced challenges in releasing greater numbers of defendants awaiting trial. Some inmates who are let out on pretrial release are monitored through ankle bracelets.
Given the efforts to reduce the jail population, ankle monitors “became limited in supply,” McCarthy said, likening it to medical equipment shortages. He said the county, in normal times, does electronic monitoring of about 150 people through ankle bracelets.
“We’re over 200 now,” he said, adding, “There have been times when our numbers became preciously limited … You may not have quite as many bracelets as you’d like.”
Md. state prisons to expand testing
Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services Robert Green also provided an update to lawmakers on the coronavirus response in state prisons.
The most recent data available shows there have been 244 COVID-19 cases in the prison system — 171 cases involved officers, 61 cases are of inmates, and 12 cases are of nonuniformed staff.
Correctional staff have been provided with personal protective equipment and have been outfitted with N95 masks.
Going forward, Green said the department was planning to implement “a broader testing strategy that’s commensurate with increases in testing capacity in the state.”
As it stands now, any inmates that show symptoms are immediately quarantined and required to wear medical masks, Green said.
However, correctional officers and other staff are not being tested. Their temperatures are being taken, but they’re asked to seek care from their own doctors if they begin to experience symptoms.
After Green’s appearance before the committee Thursday, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections announced the death of a third inmate: a man in his 60s at the Roxbury Correctional Institute in Hagerstown, Maryland.