A top-down order from a state judge during the coronavirus emergency suspends jury trials for 60 days at the Orange County Superior Court, which could reduce bail amounts to zero for lower level offenses, and permit early releases for people near the end of their sentences.

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The new measures will result in less people in the jails, reads an administrative order from OC Superior Presiding Judge Kirk Nakamura, “thus alleviating some of the pressures for arraignments within 48 hours and preliminary hearings within 10 days.”

Court officials will also look at “drastically reducing or eliminating” warrants for arresting parolees who violate the conditions of their parole, known as “flash incarceration.”

Nakamura’s order responds to one from California Supreme Court Judge Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, who suspended jury trials statewide for 60 days, citing the courts’ inability to “comply with these health restrictions” and that they “continue to operate as they have in the past.”

“Time-sensitive matters” like proceedings such as restraining orders and “urgent dependency, probate, and family matters,” will continue when necessary, according to the county courts order.

“Court proceedings require gatherings of court staff, litigants, attorneys, witnesses, and juries, well in excess of the numbers allowed for gathering under current executive and health orders,” reads Cantil-Sakauye’s order. “Many court facilities in California are ill-equipped to effectively allow the social distancing and other public health requirements required to protect people involved in court proceedings and prevent the further spread of COVID-19.”

Her statements come after OC attorneys were ordered to report for hearings on March 19 and 20 — during a 2-week court closure ordered by a higher judge — at the main courthouse in Santa Ana, where attorneys described a “public health disaster” of people packed together inside wearing masks while defendants in custody were shackled standing together.

Signs posted at the entrance of the Orange County Courthouse on March 19 detailing procedures amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The scene at the courthouse led OC Public Defender Sharon Petrosino and District Attorney Todd Spitzer to publicly criticize the court over what they saw.

“Despite criticism from the Orange County District Attorney and Public Defender, who, along with other justice partners, have always been consulted with the court’s plans, the court will continue to provide justice consistent with the conditions that exist and the recommendations of Chief Justice (Cantil-Sakauye),” Nakamura’s order reads.

Court officials are currently in meetings with the Public Defender and District Attorney’s office to see how they’ll revise terms of bail and release, among other logistical decisions to be made about how court staff will continue to work.

“The judiciary needs to take immediate steps to ensure the safety of the inmates, and to release anybody that is a low level risk to the community,” said federal defense attorney Kate Corrigan, who’s been representing attorneys in meetings among court officials about court operations during the coronavirus emergency.

“Conditions can be placed on them, whether it’s by electronic monitoring, like a GPS unit, or having a variety of other conditions placed on them as conditions of releases to ensure the safety of the public. And that’s important,” she said.

Attorneys are concerned about their clients and “the safety that we believe the jailers cannot ensure for the many people who are low-level offenders, and I think that the public needs to be thinking about the folks that are in custody … The last thing we need is to have an outbreak within the jail,” she said.

On Tuesday the first inmate in the Men’s Central Jail in Santa Ana tested positive for COVID-19, sheriff officials said. The unnamed inmate, in his 40s, showed symptoms of the flu and was placed in isolation.

As of Tuesday evening, 12 people in the jails were isolated with flu-like symptoms, including the inmate who tested positive, Sheriff’s officials said. Eight tested negative for the virus and were removed from isolation, while officials are still waiting for results for three others.

“Looking at it, (the new orders) sound very promising,” said Daisy Ramirez, OC Jails Project Coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Despite the fact her team “tried to reach a few folks today and have been unable to do so to get more information about the individual that tested positive yesterday,” Ramirez said they’re looking forward to seeing what comes out of the meetings among court and county officials about measures that could ease requirements on people seeking bail or early release.

Ramirez said her hope is that there’s no opposition to what’s on the table.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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