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County Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic: County Courts

  • County Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic: County Courts

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    County Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic: County Courts

    As public institutions and access points for public services, courthouses are busy public spaces that tend to attract large gatherings and make social distancing impractical. To mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in these institutions, many counties have drastically reduced non-essential court activities and implemented video and telephone conferencing for critical cases. Some counties are extending the deadline to pay justice fines and fees due to the economic impact of the outbreak and to reduce exposure to the virus by paying in person. Counties are also ramping up case processing, adjusting financial bail requirements and holding special hearings in order to release more individuals from jail who are awaiting trial.

    Ascension Parish, La

    The Ascension Parish Court has suspended all scheduled court proceedings through April 30. Notices with new court dates were sent in the mail. The parish district attorney and judges are working together to release some individuals with nonviolent, low-level offenses from the parish jail on a case-by-case basis. Individuals in the parish charged with misdemeanor offenses receive a summons rather than be taken to jail. The clerk of court’s office is still open but is conducting essential business at the door and barring the public from entering the building. The office has suspended certain services such as processing passports and birth certificates and is encouraging residents to file court documents online rather than in person.

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    Hamilton County, Ohio

    An order from the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court authorized the county sheriff to release low-risk, nonviolent individuals from the jail at the sheriff’s discretion. Judges are holding special hearings to release individuals being held on probation violations by lowering their bonds. The court is also expediting cases of convicted individuals to send them to the state prison. The county plans to reduce its jail population of 1,600 by 400 people, or 25 percent in order to free up space jail to isolate individuals who test positive for COVID-19. The court has placed most civil dockets on hold, with the exception of emergency hearings, arraignments, restraining orders and sentencings at the discretion of the court. The county prosecutor is also requesting fewer monetary bonds for nonviolent cases to allow more individuals to be released from custody without financial obligation.

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    Milwaukee County, Wis

    The Milwaukee County Circuit Court is suspending all jury trials and most in-person court hearings until May 22. The court is conducting proceedings via video conferencing when practicable and continuing to conduct critical cases such as custody cases involving children who need protection by allowing the children, parent/guardian, attorneys and court advocates to appear by phone. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and the sheriff’s office are working on prioritizing pending criminal cases that are eligible for immediate release to reduce the jail population. The courts are also working to adjust bail for individuals who can be released and safely monitored in the community. The court is working with law enforcement to ensure that new charges for misdemeanor offenses are cited in lieu of arrest to reduce the jail population; however, the district attorney continues to review all felony and domestic violence misdemeanors for charging.

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    Addressing the health and safety of justice-involved individuals and county staff in county courts will remain a critical component to mitigating the short- and long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In times of crisis, counties remain at the forefront of addressing pivotal challenges that affect justice and public safety in communities across the country. As the outbreak unfolds, it is important that counties continue to serve as resources for one another.

    As public institutions and access points for public services, courthouses are busy public spaces that tend to attract large gatherings and make social distancing impractical.
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