During a pandemic like the COVID-19 crisis, when all non-essential court functions have closed, it is critical to ensure that vulnerable justice-involved individuals are not forgotten. Orange County court and law enforcement stakeholders have acted with urgency and collaboration to ensure the safety and due process protections of justice-involved individuals, including those being held in the Orange County Detention Facility.
- Click here to read a full report of all steps taken.
Chief District Court Judge Joseph Buckner issued a series of orders in mid-March including one to grant a 40-day extension on any payments due to the Clerk of Court. Resident Superior Court Judge Carl Fox issued an order March 19 temporarily suspending weekend and non-continuous active sentences being served in the Orange County Detention Center as a condition of probation.
Given the nature of a detention center setting, with many people, including staff, sharing communal and confined spaces, the potential for an outbreak is severe. Reducing the population became a focal point to protect all inmates as well as the guards and staff who work in the facility, their family members and attorneys.
Criminal Justice Resource Department staff worked with the District Attorney’s Office, judges, the Public Defender’s Office and assigned counsel to identify Pretrial individuals in custody with medical issues that made them vulnerable and/ or with cases where release to the community or a program could be safely and carefully considered. Where possible, these individuals were released.
Magistrates have used their discretion to order Pretrial Services supervision instead of waiting until the individual’s First Appearance hearing. Where a magistrate does not have discretion, district and superior court judges are on call to immediately authorize release conditions. Individuals who are detained are screened by Pretrial Services immediately and recommendations for release conditions are made to the first appearance stakeholders.
These measures helped reduce the Detention Center population significantly and safely, further decreasing the risk of an outbreak. According to data from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, the Detention Center population has been cut by more than 37 percent, from a daily total of 130 on Jan. 13 to a daily total of 82 on April 4. The pretrial population (individuals awaiting trial) had been cut by 50%, from 80 to 40.
Where possible, law enforcement officers are issuing citations to people who allegedly violate the law instead of arresting them. This alternative way of compelling individuals to court diverts people from entering the detention center but still requires their eventual appearance before the judicial system.
This diversion coupled with early intervention at the Magistrate’s office when there is an arrest, has dramatically reduced the number of pretrial bookings. Between March 15, 2019, and April 15, 2019, there were 145 pretrial individuals booked into the Detention Center. Between March 15, 2020, and April 15, 2020, 38 pretrial individuals were booked in to custody. That is a 74% reduction in pretrial people entering the Detention Center.
While much of society has taken a pause, critical justice matters continue to be heard following social distancing guidelines and using virtual technology where appropriate. District Court sessions continue to be held daily at 2 p.m. for first appearances, bond motions, pleas, ex parte and other emergency orders and critical matters to ensure due process, victim protection and facilitate additional custody releases. District attorneys and public defenders appear via WebEx and a Judge presides in person. Superior Court judges are available immediately to hear pleas or bond motions by WebEx that will result in the release of an individual.
Individuals seeking Domestic Violence Protection Orders continue to be served remotely by the Compass Center and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. DVPO E-Filings continue to be heard daily by a judge. Civil family violence courts and hearings for hospital commitments and child planning conferences continue.
“While safely and equitably reducing pretrial incarceration has been a priority for Orange County, these additional urgent actions have significantly reduced pretrial incarceration and enhanced safety during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Caitlin Fenhagen, Orange County’s Criminal Justice Resource Department Director. “In addition, they have ensured critical functions and due process protections remain in place.”
For the protection of detainees, staff and visitors to the Detention Center, the Sheriff’s Office implemented several safety precautions, including two negative pressure rooms for incoming detainees. Medical staff monitors the individuals, taking their temperature daily. If a person has no fever and remains symptom free for three days, only then will he or she transfer into the general population.
“We followed professional recommendations and installed multiple air scrubbers with HEPA filtration in the detention center,” said Sheriff Charles Blackwood. “These scrubbers reduce particulate matter and airborne viruses and significantly improve air quality in the facility.”
Visitations, except in emergencies, have been canceled. If a visitation is needed, it is conducted virtually with the use of technology. Significantly, peer support and telepsychiatry has been continued virtually, and the Sheriff’s Office has arranged for three free weekly telephone calls for individuals in custody.
“We have been having multiple weekly conference calls regarding COVID-19 since January,” said Blackwood. “Through these, we sought guidance for COVID-19 specific best practices for an incarcerated population. We subsequently received Guidance for Correctional Facilities information from DHHS’s Division of Public Health’s Communicable Disease branch.”