Public defenders say the legal system is a mess and demand prosecutors file fewer cases until the outbreak settles.
Public defenders say the legal system is a mess and demand prosecutors file fewer cases until the outbreak settles. RS

As of last Friday the number of current inmates with COVID-19 in King County jails doubled from 16 to 30, according to the dashboard updated by the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD), which is not good!

Before the latest outbreak, which the jail reported last week, 47 other inmates in King County had tested positive for the virus. At last count, the total population at the downtown jail and at the Maleng Regional Justice Center (MRJC) in Kent sat at 1,360.

In an effort to slow the spread, public defenders, who must continue to meet with their clients at the jail and in courtrooms despite the spike in COVID-19 infections, renewed calls to restrict case filings and to pause in-person hearings for nonviolent, out-of-custody cases.

In a press release last week a DADJ spokesperson said the most recent outbreak started on Sunday Dec 6, when an inmate who'd tested negative upon entry in October suddenly tested positive.

Jail staff then tested 69 inmates housed in the same wing as the infected person and turned up 15 more positive cases. Staff shipped those 16 COVID-positive people to "medical isolation" at the MRJC in Kent. The remaining inmates "continue to be 'quarantined'" on the floors in the downtown jail where the outbreak was first recorded, according to a Dec 10 email sent from DADJ to its "criminal legal system partners."

In that email a representative from the jail said they'll continue testing the quarantined group downtown and move any new positive cases into medical isolation at the MRJC.

I asked a spokesperson for the DADJ where in the jail the staff detected the new cases, but he didn't respond for comment by deadline. I'll update when I hear back.

As of last Friday the number of current inmates with COVID-19 in King County jails doubled from 16 to 30.
As of last Friday the number of current inmates with COVID-19 in King County jails doubled from 16 to 30. RS

Aside from continuing to test, the DAJD rep said staff is "undertaking aggressive decontamination measures" and running its own contact tracing program to notify "in-custody individuals, staff, or visitors who may have been exposed to infected individuals." The rep claimed staff interviewed all 16 people who tested positive last week and found only a few cases where "there were potential contacts" with people outside of the DADJ. Those potential contacts, the rep claimed, have been notified, though the DADJ will continue contract tracing and "reaching out to our partners in the legal community and law enforcement" who may have been exposed to the virus.

But at least one public defender who requested anonymity to speak freely said on Sunday they'd recently "potentially been exposed to the virus through work" and had not yet been contacted by the DADJ's contact tracers.

Out of concern for their clients, themselves, and the community, this attorney said they'd like to see broader contact tracing regimes at the jail, a pause on in-person hearings for out-of-custody cases, and a pause on any more filings for nonviolent charges or for older cases. Continuing on with the current protocols despite the COVID-19 surge, this attorney said, puts at risk public defenders and their clients, as clients and attorneys must continue to meet to exchange documents related to cases.

In an email to other public defenders, Anita Khandelwal, director of the King County Department of Public Defense, said she asked King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg to reinstitute the filing restrictions he imposed back in March. Those restrictions limited the prosecutor's office only to file cases alleging serious violence. She also sent a letter to the Governor and other state officials asking that the state include public defense employees and incarcerated people in Phase 1 of the state's vaccination distribution plan, given the outbreaks seen here in King County and at jails and prisons across the state. It's worth taking a moment to acknowledge the 792 cases at the Airway Heights Corrections Center outside of Spokane, which is fucking insane.

"The COVID-19 surge in both the community and the jail means it is more likely than ever that individuals who are ordered to come to court or booked into jail are COVID-positive or that they will leave the jail/court COVID-positive and spread COVID throughout the community," Khandelwal wrote in the email. "The impact of failure to take action now to reduce filings, jail bookings, and court hearings will undoubtedly fall most heavily on BIPOC communities; BIPOC individuals are already disproportionately represented in the criminal legal system."

Casey McNerthney, a spokesperson for the King County Prosecutor's Office (KCPO), said they're "looking into DPD's note and plan to respond with specifics this coming week."

McNerthney said prosecutors are only filing "the most serious" out-of-custody cases—people accused of felonies who have significant criminal histories and who have failed to appear in court several times—and they're only filing at the rate the Court permits.

Last summer the Court, under the guidance of public officials, lifted its pause on out-of-custody hearings and allowed a limited number of cases heard each day, with physical distancing measures in place. The Court hears some preliminary cases over the telephone, though some are held in person.

Prosecutors file approximately 20 out-of-custody cases each week, McNerthney said, but "that certainly doesn’t mean that’s 20 more people that we are asking go into jail immediately in the pandemic," as the failure-to-appear rate in those cases is high.

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The reason prosecutors are filing these cases in the first place, McNerthney continued, is to work through a backlog of approximately 6,000 ongoing cases, which had doubled since last spring due to the slow rate of filings and the March pause on hearings. "If we don’t incrementally and safely address the number of pending cases, the court system will not be able to handle the capacity when things return to normal," McNerthney said.

That said, "if the Courts or Public Health said the number of out-of-custody arraignments should be less per week, we’d follow those guidelines," McNerthney added. And of course, judges ultimately decide who goes to jail and who doesn't.

A King County Superior Court spokesperson said "we have been at the forefront of employing technology to allow for remote access when a court appearance is necessary," and added that "telephonic and zoom appearances are common and have reduced the number of out of custody in-person appearances.”