Getting arrested and being stuck in jail while fighting criminal charges is frustrating and difficult enough. Being arrested and incarcerated in the age of the novel coronavirus puts your health at risk even more than usual as social distancing is near impossible in a prison. With courts closed to the public and emergency hearings being held for only certain motions and cases, you or a loved one could be sitting in jail much longer than you would otherwise.
When the coronavirus pandemic began, experts immediately expressed concerns about inmates in jails and prisons throughout the country. In such close quarters, it is virtually impossible to effectively stop the virus from spreading to all inmates. Staff and visitors are also at risk. In response to these risks, the entire criminal justice system has been taking extraordinary measures to protect the population in these dangerous times.
The York Daily Record reports that the state Supreme Court has closed all Pennsylvania courts to the public (with limited exceptions) until April 30th. This means that court hearings that are usually open to the public will be limited to only the attorneys and parties involved. The courts will continue to hear emergency cases, including petitions for protection orders and emergency child custody orders, detainer petitions, early parole petitions and preliminary arraignments. Many of these hearings will be conducted by video and teleconferencing whenever possible.
Many courts are also reducing bail and other pretrial release conditions in order to get inmates out of our local jails. Pittsburgh Action News reports that 701 inmates were released from the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh due to concerns over the Coronavirus spreading through the jail population. This mostly applies to elderly inmates with health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19, as well as nonviolent offenders.
It's not just the courts taking action, either. Back on March 15th, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that District Attorney Larry Krasner was revising his office's policies surrounding charging and bail. Many defense attorneys have called for expanded pretrial release for nonviolent offenders. It is extraordinary to see a high-ranking prosecutor also change policies in favor of defendants. This shows just how serious the pandemic has become. It has crossed partisan barriers to become a human rights issue - and all too often, a matter of survival.
All of these changes have altered the course of criminal cases at every stage of the case process. Officers have always had the authority to cite and release defendants without holding them in jail for low-level, nonviolent offenses. Many law enforcement agencies across the country are expanding this authority. Officers are being encouraged to cite and release defendants wherever possible in order to reduce the local jail populations.
Of course, many offenses require a defendant to be arrested and held until he or she can appear before a judge. At this initial appearance, the judge will decide if there is enough evidence to keep the defendant in custody. If there is, the judge will also set pretrial release conditions, such as bail, electronic ankle monitoring, or orders to stay away from the alleged victims. Here, too, judges are being more lenient in their authority and modifying pretrial release conditions to allow more defendants to stay out of jail while their case is pending. Prosecutors have the opportunity to object to pretrial release conditions and ask the judge for stricter requirements such as a higher bail amount, but they are also mindful of the current dangers faced by inmates in custody across the county. Many prosecutors are also being more lenient and finding fewer reasons to object to pretrial release in the midst of this worldwide pandemic.
There are many ways in which a criminal defense attorney can help you avoid the health risks associated with incarceration. This starts before charges are even filed against you. As soon as you become the subject of a criminal investigation, you face the possibility of being arrested and detained. A defense attorney can help ensure that your constitutional rights are protected during such an investigation. Your criminal defense attorney will insist on being present if the police question you in order to protect you from self-incrimination. An attorney can also insist that police obtain required warrants to search your vehicle or residence or to seize evidence they intend to use against you.
If charges are filed against you, your defense lawyer will have many opportunities to work to keep you out of jail. Prosecutors and judges are more likely than ever to agree to pretrial release conditions, but this is not guaranteed in every case. The prosecutor and judge must both be assured that you will appear at future court hearings. Your attorney will know how to assure them that you will not flee the jurisdiction, even with more lenient pretrial release conditions.
This is not the only point in the criminal case process at which a defendant faces the possibility of incarceration. If pretrial release conditions are violated, they can be revoked, and the defendant can be held in custody until his or her trial. But this, too, is up to the judge to decide, after hearing from both the prosecutor and defense attorney. A criminal defense attorney can argue in favor of leniency to keep you out of the dangerous jails. If it is a minor violation, such as coming home five minutes after an assigned curfew, there is a strong chance that a lawyer will be able to keep you out of jail.
After a conviction, your attorney will have the opportunity to make arguments to the judge about what sentence is appropriate. Some crimes come with mandatory jail time. In these cases, your attorney can argue for the lowest jail term possible in order to limit the amount of time your health is endangered in jail. Other crimes carry only the possibility of jail time. In these cases, your attorney can argue that no jail time is required and that alternative punishments such as fines and community service are sufficient in your case.
Now, more than ever, it is important for criminal defendants to exercise their right to pretrial release. While detention always results in the loss of freedom, it also carries a very real risk of serious illness during the current Coronavirus pandemic. Attorney Lauren Wimmer is an experienced criminal defense lawyer who has helped many defendants defend important constitutional rights that protect them before trial. Call 215-712-1212 or use our online contact form to schedule your consultation.