OAKLAND, Calif. - Courts around the country, including the Bay Area, are backlogged again, predominantly because of COVID-related issues.
Some delays are related to courts not being fully open during the surge, and in Alameda County in particular, it's a transportation issue, as there are too many positive-testing deputies and incarcerated people to get them safely in front of a judge and jury.
This issue has affected Joseph Lewis Jr., 24, who has been held at Santa Rita Jail since Dec. 16. on pimping and concealed firearm changes.
His mother said that his bail hearing was canceled on Monday; it was supposed to be held in-person at the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland. His next hearing is scheduled for Jan. 28.
"He is sitting without bail this whole time," Sawanja Everhart of Alameda said. "He has never been in trouble. This was his first arrest. And this is a violation of his rights. This is not fair."
Even video visits have been postponed at Santa Rita, according to Everhart and several other people who have contacted KTVU with similar issues. That's because, jail administration doesn't want to bring infected people into a shared video court hearing room at the Dublin jail, they were told. That said, jail officials said 136 video hearings were held on Monday. And 48 people were taken to court on Tuesday in person. It's not clear how many were supposed to have taken place.
Raquel Zavala said her friend who is incarcerated at Santa Rita Jail has even started a hunger strike over the court delays. He's been in there for seven months and has only had one court hearing.
"How are they getting their due process?" Zavala asked.
Transportation issues getting defendants to court
Alameda County Superior Court spokesman Chad Finke said that criminal and juvenile courts are up and running as usual, but he acknowledged that family and civil courtrooms have cut back on hours and do have backlogs. And even though judges might be working, often hearings are postponed because the players involved have called out sick.
And according to Alameda County Sheriff's Lt. Ray Kelly, there are some judges who want to "reduce the calenders" without the courtroom during the latest surge.
Kelly admitted there were some "transport issues" on Monday and Tuesday. About half the jail transportation staff is out sick.
To date, 220 of out 2,200 incarcerated people at Santa Rita have COVID and of those, 196 are asymptomatic. Kelly said that almost 60% of the deputies are vaccinated and about 130 or so are in quarantine. By contrast 90.78% of Contra Costa County sheriff's employees are vaccinated.
"We have COVID in the jail and with our employees," he said. "We’re doing our best just like everyone else. We have to be smart and we have to be safe."
Kelly noted that this issue is not unique to Alameda County, where the District Attorney's Office added it is trying to create an "early disposition court" to help end the backlog of misdemeanor cases.
However, Contra Costa County Sheriff's spokesman Jimmy Lee said that even though some staff members are out with COVID, "our ability to provide critical services such as transportation to court has not been impacted."
Jury selection suspended in Contra Costa County
But that doesn't mean the court system hasn't been affected in Contra Costa County.
Matt Malone, spokesman for Contra Costa County Superior Court, said certain court cases have now halted for the time being.
The presiding judge suspended jury selection as of Dec. 27 because of the dramatic rise of county infection rates. He said he didn't know exactly how many trials this has impacted or will impact, but he said there have been many examples of cases that have had to be continued because of positive COVID cases among jurors, attorneys and defendants. Jury trials will be suspended until at least Jan. 24.
"The court is very disappointed by this development," Malone said.
He added that the presiding judge will re-assess the situation and possible resume trials on Friday, but only unless there is a dramatic drop in positive cases.
Omicron wreaking havoc across U.S. courts
Across the United States, the omicron surge is wreaking havoc of all types of industries, from hospital to schools, from police stations to offices. But the canceled court dates pose unique problems for all sides. Defendants want their due process and district attorneys and victims want their day in court. This is also the second time stakeholders in the criminal justice system have been affected; the first time was in March of last year, during another wave of the pandemic.
Courts in Vermont, Washington state, and Wisconsin, to name a few, have been delayed certain court hearings because of the rising infection rate. In California, presiding judges in Sacramento, Los Angeles, Riverside, Sonoma and Orange counties have also postponed preliminary hearings and restricting the number of jury trials.
Delays in the U.S. court system are nothing new, but the pandemic has created even longer wait times. A survey by the Thomson Reuters Institute released in August found that the average backlog in state and local courts had increased by about a third.
And that includes state courts as well as federal ones.
The criminal fraud trial of former Theranos Inc. president Ramesh "Sunny" Balwani, which had been scheduled to start in February, will be delayed because of a surge in COVID cases in California.
U.S. District Judge Edward Davila in San Jose said Friday during a hearing that the spread of the coronavirus will "push our trial back about a month." The trial may be rescheduled to mid-March, he said.
San Francisco Public Defender sues over backlogged cases
In San Francisco, Public Defender Mano Raju and several taxpayers sued the Superior Court in September over the topic, despite court spokesman Ken Garcia saying "unlike several other courts around the state, San Francisco Superior Court is open and trials are continuing."
The current backlog isn't due the recent COVID surge, "but the court's choices throughout the pandemic not to hold more trials when we know that they can and have done so safely here and in other counties," Raju's office said.
The suit alleges that the court has violated the rights of nearly 400 people by failing to hold jury trials within 60 days as required by law — even as COVID restrictions have eased, public events have resumed and restaurants and gyms have reopened.
Last month, members of the Public Defender's Office also gave a presentation to the board of supervisors, saying that prioritizing criminal jury trials is an urgent matter.
As of December 2021, there were more than 200 people, nearly 25% of the jail population in San Francisco, who stand accused of felony charges and whose trial deadlines have passed, according to Raju. Nearly 300 more people accused of felony or misdemeanor charges are out of custody and have also seen their trial deadlines pass.
Currently, there are only five criminal jury trials in progress at the San Francisco Hall of Justice.
"This is a humanitarian crisis for the hundreds of people trapped in jail -- accused and not convicted -- whose lives and liberty have been upended by the courts that won't make space for them even as their trial deadlines have passed," Raju said. "No one deserves to be locked up 23 hours a day with no family visits, and the courts have created this crisis by not holding more trials when we know it is possible to do so safely."