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Virtual court hearings in Spokane County to expand to homeless shelters to slow no-shows

Aug. 3, 2020 Updated Mon., Aug. 3, 2020 at 8:19 p.m.

The Spokane County Courthouse
The Spokane County Courthouse

Since the start of the pandemic more people facing criminal charges are missing court hearings, but local criminal justice leaders hope to reduce those numbers by letting defendants appear in front of judges virtually from local homeless shelters and behavioral health offices.

Last month Spokane County commissioners approved $78,500 for the program from federal COVID-19 aid funding; homeless shelters and the courts hope to have the program up and running in the next few weeks.

The program would allow some defendants visiting Pioneer Human Services sites and those staying in House of Charity, Catholic Charities Haven properties and Hope House to attend court at “remote access points.” Those access points will include a private room, use of a tablet and technology assistance from a staff member.

Howard Delaney, Municipal Court administrator for the city of Spokane, said since the start of the pandemic between a third to half of defendants have not shown up for their first appearance, which is significantly higher than normal.

He said many may not be showing up because the courts are not issuing arrest warrants for failure to appear during the pandemic, or because they may not have the technology and resources to appear virtually, or are afraid to show up in person.

“Nobody wants to go to court right now so that’s not a surprise,” he said. “There’s probably a combination of economic, and non-economic factors and COVID-related things.”

Both District Court and Municipal Court have allowed appearances in person and with video conferencing technology. Only a few people are allowed in a courtroom at a time, and many facing misdemeanor charges don’t have access to privacy, high speed internet, a smartphone or a computer they can use for video conferencing.

John Witter, Spokane County District Court administrator, said failure to appear in District Court also is high , and cases are left in limbo when court staff can’t connect with people facing charges.

He said the courtroom used for defendants to make their first appearance in front of a judge in District Court holds 60 people, including court staff, but that number has been reduced to 15 people during the pandemic .

“It’s ideal for everybody, including the court, to expand virtual hearings,” he said.

Dena Carr, director of the House of Charity, said many people staying in the shelter have some involvement in the court system, but also far more limitations when trying to participate in the justice process, which has become even more difficult to overcome during the pandemic.

“For the most part, people do want to be able to follow through with their obligations,” she said. “It’s just navigating these systems can be very confusing and overwhelming, so I think this is a really good way to help them navigate those systems and some of those barriers.”

The remote court appearances at shelters and behavioral health facilities will only be accessible for Spokane County Municipal and District Court appearances. Spokane County Superior Court is not included in the program.

Maggie Yates, Spokane County Regional Law and Justice administrator, said the program does not have a firm start date yet, but she hopes it is running within a few weeks.

County commissioners also approved $30,000 in federal COVID-19 aid funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to continue the Criminal Justice Information Hotline, which was started in May. Members of the public can call (509) 477-5640 for more information about accessing the criminal justice system, operations during the pandemic and the remote court appearance program.

Those looking to use a remote court appearance also may be able to find out more information through their defense attorney.

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