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What Happens To People's Legal Cases As Coronavirus Shuts Down Courts?


The coronavirus is forcing district and state courts to shut down around the country. Thousands of cases will be in limbo, and there is growing concern about people awaiting legal decisions sitting in jail cells. Joining me now in the studio is Premal Dharia. She is a former public defender and now the director of the Defender Impact Initiative. Welcome.


MONTAGNE: You know, people have raised concerns about how COVID-19 might affect the prison population. We've been hearing a bit of that. But jails are a little bit different, aren't they?

DHARIA: They are, yes. Generally speaking, they are places that people who have not yet been convicted of any offense go and where people who are serving short sentences or who are detained on so-called technical violations of probation or parole go. The turnover rate is enormous and very different than that of prisons.

MONTAGNE: And so does that already raise a red flag about how vulnerable those who are locked up in jails might be to something like the coronavirus?

DHARIA: Absolutely. It's a huge concern. We have more than 3,000 jails around the country. Having the constant churn of people coming in and out just exacerbates the problem and exposes everybody on the outside and on the inside. In Florida alone, 2,000 people are admitted and released in county jails per day, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

MONTAGNE: What about medical attention? Again, a prison, which may have lots of long-term people in there - presumably, there are doctors available. What about a jail, though?

DHARIA: Because a lot of jails are in rural and/or poor places, there are inherently resource issues in lots of them. Medical treatment and resources are not equipped to handle - certainly not pandemics of this magnitude. We don't have epidemiologists or infectious disease experts.

There are often also understaffing issues so that when people who are in jails request medical attention, it might not happen right away. Statistics and studies show that people who have preexisting or underlying conditions that are very vulnerable to COVID-19 - heart conditions or heart disease, asthma, diabetes - are disproportionately represented in jails.

MONTAGNE: Well, are there any lessons from history? What methods did, say, jails use to contain past outbreaks like the H1N1 swine flu? It was just a few years ago.

DHARIA: Historically, jails around the country - and prisons, as well - have engaged in this sort of attempt at containment by creating isolation or segregation or locking down their facilities. This is not going to be effective. Creating solitary confinement conditions for people, particularly people who are legally not permitted to be punished...

MONTAGNE: They have not been convicted...

DHARIA: Correct.

MONTAGNE: ...Of anything yet.

DHARIA: Correct. But...

MONTAGNE: They just, say, couldn't make bail.

DHARIA: Correct. I think this is going to lead to a lot of frustration on the parts of people who need and deserve to have their cases heard. We are seeing courts starting to shut down already. We're seeing jurors not being called in. We're certainly seeing lawyers teleworking.

And I think what would be much more effective at keeping the most people safe is releasing as many people as possible from incarceration. Prosecutors can start to decline seeking detention on the front end. Courts can decline to detain people or can release people. Sheriffs and other people overseeing jails can start to advocate for the release of the people inside facilities. Parole commissions and governors can start to release people as well. A lot of people are held on parole or probation violations or could be granted early release through other means.

MONTAGNE: That's Premal Dharia. She's a former public defender and now director of the Defender Impact Initiative. Thank you for joining us in our studio.

DHARIA: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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