As reports for positive test results of Covid-19 for inmates, guards and health care professionals testing are on the rise, jails and prisons across the country are struggling to contain the virus.
As of Friday, the Georgia Department of Corrections, which houses roughly 52,000 inmates, had 139 confirmed cases in 30 of the state’s 34 detention facilities, according to the AJC. Altogether 67 staff members and 72 offenders have been stricken with the disease caused by the coronavirus, with two prisons in south Georgia — Lee State and Johnson State — reporting a combined 44 infections.
In Augusta, as of the 16th of April there were 916 inmates in the Charles B. Webster Detention Center in Richmond County. This time last year there were 940 inmates in the jail, which has a reported maximum occupancy of 1,052 inmates.
Yesterday it was announced a nurse contracted by the medical provider at the jail had been diagnosed with coronavirus. The Sheriff’s Office says there are no other confirmed cases at the center and operations will continue.
The CSRA’s judicial system is working to reduce the jail population as best they can, moving cases through with a reduced staff in place while facing new challenges to the system. Last week the Superior Court was busy, using WebEx to safely work cases. Being that law enforcement is still arresting violent felonies and serious drug cases, bond hearings are still being conducted.
The largest hurdles facing the judicial system is the lack of juries and the risks of bringing witnesses to Court. Having a jury trial is the engine that moves criminal cases, and oftentimes juries need to be empaneled to either try a case or help resolve a case by way of a plea.
With WebEx, the defendant is in the jail, the district attorney is in their office, the defense lawyer is generally present but can be in their office. There are two televisions in the courtroom, with one facing the gallery and one facing the judge.
Before the Covid-19 breakout, Judge Wade Padgett had been working on facilitating WebEx appearances to deal with inmates in the Department of Corrections custody elsewhere in the state, so area courts are ahead of the curve. “We already had some of this equipment and it was already being used,” reports a courthouse Insider.
In an effort to keep moving cases, judges are also letting defense attorneys know If they have someone in jail, and it’s a borderline case, it might be a good idea to go ahead and try to resolve it. Judges might be more likely to probate a sentence in a borderline case than before the pandemic.
To be sure, no sheriff is going to issue a free pass. It is just changing how people are getting brought into the jail.
There are two ways to bring a case against someone. One is an indictment returned by a grand jury. The other is an accusation, which is a charging instrument that if filed by the District Attorney with the Clerk of Court and doesn’t require presentment to the Grand Jury.
Two weeks ago the DA and the Public Defender’s Office got together and agreed in certain cases to waive indictment on cases that might have otherwise required Grand Jury presentment. Insiders report a number of inmates, with the help of their public defender, have waived indictment, which will allow them to be arraigned on an accusation.
Even if the inmate doesn’t plead guilty to the accusation, it at least gets the discovery process started and the case can get underway.
Court Insiders are optimistic a number of new, streamlined practices will remain in place after the threat of the virus has dissipated.