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Maryland Courts, County Jails Adapt to COVID-19 Implications

Bail hearings, some of the only court activities happening in Anne Arundel County, are being conducted via video conferencing. The shift has not been without its flaws, but it’s one of the only options available.

by Alex Mann, The Capital / April 2, 2020
Shutterstock/piick

(TNS) — Technological hiccups disrupted Anne Arundel County District Judge Thomas Pryal’s bail review docket March 24, signs of a criminal justice system adapting on the fly to the implications of the rapidly evolving coronavirus pandemic — from the courtroom to county jails.

At bail review hearings, judges determine if someone arrested and charged with a crime will be released in any capacity as they await trial or whether they will stay behind bars. These proceedings are among the few ongoing functions of courts which have been mostly shuttered to stop the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. However, even these essential matters have taken on a new form.

Pryal was joined in the Annapolis courtroom by a clerk, a bailiff and two public defenders, the latter of whom would usually phone in from the jail with their clients. The prosecutor, who is usually in the courtroom, phoned in. Assistant State’s Attorney Kristopher Vicencio was adhering to his office’s policy in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

As usual, defendants appeared on video feeds from county jails with Department of Detention Facilities Pretrial Services staffers. The jail feed worked fine, but the Pryal’s voice wasn’t carrying to the courtroom phone that was connecting Vicencio.

“This is really going well so far...” Pryal quipped.

Pryal presided that day over cases spanning the spectrum of people facing non-violent misdemeanor charges, whom county prosecutors and public defenders agreed should be released or have a chance at release, to capital offenses that occurred hours earlier.

“Your Honor, can I switch rooms really quick?” Vicencio asked after the first case, saying his cell reception was shoddy. The Clerk called Vicencio on his own cell phone, switched it to “speaker” mode and placed it in front of Pryal.

So began the second bail review hearing for a Baltimore woman, who just spent her 19th birthday behind bars awaiting trial on theft conspiracy charges. She was arrested in February after allegedly shoplifting from the Target in Laurel and was being held on a $3,500 bond, which her public defender, Peter Terech, described as “unachievable" in an emergency motion for a bail review in light of the pandemic.

The woman is single with a 10th grade education, a pretrial services employee said. “She was participating in our education program here before it froze due to the, uh, problems.”

The detention center’s partnership with Anne Arundel Community College, which allows inmates to achieve their GEDs, has been put on hold, Superintendent William Martin wrote in response to questions from The Capital. Weekend sentence, inmate visitation, inmate worker and community service programs have also been suspended.

Vicencio told Pryal that the Baltimore woman should be released on pretrial supervision “in light of the current circumstances” and the judge ordered as much, mandating she not return to the Target.

Martin said his department has changed in light of the most “defining, challenging crisis” he’s seen over 50 years in corrections. During intake at Jennifer Road, inmates have their temperatures taken by thermal thermometer and answer health questions outlined by federal guidelines. This process is repeated when they are released.

New inmates are placed in a separate housing unit and quarantined until it reaches 40 inmates or eight days, at which point the unit is placed on lockdown for 14 days, Martin said. Staff members, who have their temperatures checked every day, monitor those in quarantine for symptoms and conduct a medical physical in the first 14 days.

“After 14 days (new inmates) are transported to the Ordnance Road Correctional Center, placed into a housing unit and for the most part are on lockdown,” Martin said. “Only a few inmates are not on lockdown in that they assist in sanitizing the facilities.”

Public defenders are using the lockdown conditions in arguments for the release of clients, as they say jails are uniquely susceptible to outbreaks. That’s how the case of a Pasadena man, who police said broke into two homes while intoxicated, came before Pryal. The 33-year-old has been incarcerated since Jan. 19.

Assistant Public Defender Brian Stubits cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance while arguing the man’s release. He wrote that federal agency recommends staying away from the sick and keeping hands clean.

Inmates don’t have access to most cleaning and sanitizing supplies, Stubits wrote. “In an incarcerated environment, inmates are not able to socially distance themselves..."

Vicencio said the allegations showed the Pasadena man was dangerous and he should be kept behind bars or released on strict pretrial supervision, perhaps house arrest. Pretrial services said they tried to find family or friends with whom the man could stay but none would agree.

Pryal said he was “inclined” to release the man because of the pandemic but, without a place for him to stay, the risk was too great. Pryal told him to come back if he could make living arrangements.

Eventually Pryal called the case of 37-year-old from Glen Burnie charged with violating a protective order, court records show. The man did not speak English. Stubits, who speaks Spanish, said he’d met with his client at the jail to go over charges and the bail review hearing. The man understood him in person, Stubits said.

Rather than allowing attorneys into the general population like usual, the jail has accommodated for defense lawyers to meet with clients in attorney booths, which have glass partitions. They’ve also arranged telephone calls for inmates with their attorneys, said District Public Defender William Davis.

Pryal had to call for a Spanish interpreter on his smartphone. “Ask if the defendant can hear you,” Pryal instructed the interpreter.

“No escucho ,” the Glen Burnie man responded.

“You’re here for a bail review. Do you understand?” the interpreter asked.

He didn’t understand. Stubits suspected the interpreter’s voice was too distorted — it came from a cell phone speaker into the courtroom and was picked up by microphones for the video call. Stubits tried explaining in Spanish, like he had at the jail. It turned out his client wasn’t fluent in Spanish. His native language is Q’eqchi', an indigenous dialect of Guatemala.

“Not being with the defendant at the time of the bail review is a little bit challenging,” Davis said in an interview. That’s why his public defenders usually do the hearings from jail; because when a problem crops up they can mute the microphone and explain or ask questions in person.

The pandemic came up even in cases where the judge’s ruling was never in doubt. Pryal ordered no bond for Timothy Paul Gough, 53, who is charged with murder for the alleged fatal stabbing of his girlfriend, and Todd Michael Lowry, a 69-year-old from Pocahontas, Virginia, who is charged with the sexual abuse of a 6-year-old girl.

Lowry stated his right to a preliminary hearing but the Maryland Judiciary has postponed all non-emergency matters until after May 1.

“I wish I could tell you with some certainty when that will take place," Pryal said.

©2020 The Capital (Annapolis, Md.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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