This story was produced by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit newsroom by Louisville Public Media. For more, visit KyCIR.org.
In early August, a judge in Shelby County set bail for seven people accused of crimes who weren’t there in the courtroom, or watching remotely.
They weren’t allowed to participate in their hearings because they were quarantined, either for having COVID-19 or being exposed at the Shelby County Detention Center.
Shelby County jailer Darrell Cox said the jail hasn’t set up a virtual option for quarantined people because the WiFi signal doesn’t penetrate the concrete walls of the jail, and running a cord through the facility would pose safety issues. He says they also won’t transport people to the court house if there’s a chance they can spread COVID-19.
That means that a year and a half into the pandemic, the people held there see their cases grind to a halt when they’re exposed to or catch the coronavirus — or their hearings simply go on without them.
The issue prompted a public defender to ask a judge last month to release those still held in the jail on their own recognizance or order the jail to allow them to appear in court in-person or virtually.
Judge Charles Hickman of the Shelby Circuit Court denied the request and, as a result, people who have not been convicted have gone weeks at the Shelby County Detention Center without the chance to see a judge.
The Department of Public Advocacy’s website says it can sometimes take up to one week for people charged with a crime to be arraigned.
Cox said these circumstances occur rarely: only when someone has tested positive or been exposed to someone who had the coronavirus, and has a court date scheduled. Five people at the jail currently have the virus and are in quarantine with mild symptoms, Cox said.
“All we try and do is follow the safety precautions,” Cox said. “I have to take care of the public as well as the jail.”
Virtual courts ‘should be routine’
Public defender Saeid Shafizadeh filed a writ of habeas corpus on Aug. 4 on behalf of the seven individuals held in Shelby County, arguing the lack of options violates incarcerated people’s constitutional rights.
The coronavirus created this challenge for jails and courtrooms across the country, as many court systems — including Kentucky — scaled back in-person hearing dramatically. Though Cox said it’s not possible in Shelby County, most jails and prisons implemented virtual options for people to appear in court through video calling or by phone.
“These petitioners have been denied the ability to get to court, to ask for counsel, or to argue for a bail review, or have their case set for pretrial conferences,” Shafizadeh’s petition said. “There is no reason why these folks should be held in jail for two weeks or longer, when — 17 months into the pandemic —virtual court in jails should be routine.”
In a hearing on Aug. 11, a captain at the jail testified that new arrivals were automatically held in a 12-day quarantine.
Hickman wrote in his order that correctional facilities were dealing with an “unprecedented issue” while attempting to stop the spread of the virus through the vulnerable population.
“The Court appreciates that the Petitioners are being frustrated by not being transported to Court,” Hickman wrote in his order siding with the jail. “The reason provided for the failure of the jail to transport the Petitioners on the foregoing dates was that the inmates were in quarantine, as they had either tested positive for COVID-19 or had been housed in a cell with another inmate who had tested positive for COVID-19.”
Hickman argued that the bond amounts were not improperly high, and pointed out that at least one defendant’s bail was reduced from $5,000 to $500 without them attending the court hearing.
The judge encouraged the jail to find a way for people quarantined there to appear by telephone.
Contact Jared Bennett at email@example.com.