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Spokane County courts working to alleviate jail crowding amid COVID-19 concerns

The Spokane County Jail, shown June 28, 2018, is a modern building that sits behind the Public Safety Building and the Spokane County Courthouse. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Following an urgent request from jail officials, Spokane County’s district and superior courts have prepared lists of inmates who might be released to alleviate crowding and prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading in the county’s detention facilities.

Judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys are reviewing those lists and deciding who should be released on a case-by-case basis, prioritizing defendants with underlying health issues and those held for low-level offenses.

The two county courts are following the lead of Spokane Municipal Court, which issued an emergency order on Monday that resulted in the release of 48 inmates.

In an announcement Wednesday, Superior Court Administrator Ashley Callan said those prioritized for release include “pre- and post-conviction individuals with a high-risk health issue as determined by the jail, individuals held on a bond lower than $2,500 (and) sentenced individuals who are no longer able to access work-release.”

Rather than issue a blanket order like Municipal Court, Superior Court judges will follow the standard process of hearing motions to release defendants from prosecutors or defense attorneys.

“Because the Superior Court deals with individuals charged with felony offenses, both violent and nonviolent, decisions to release from incarceration cannot be handled with a general order,” Callan said. “It is our intent to protect public safety, victims’ rights, and the health and safety of those incarcerated.”

District Court judges also are reviewing cases individually. Like Municipal Court, District Court primarily handles civil infractions and misdemeanors.

Presiding Judge Aimee Maurer said District Court will prioritize releasing inmates held for low-level misdemeanors or for failing to appear in court, while those accused of drunken driving or domestic violence will be considered higher risks to the community. Inmates held on bonds less than $5,000 also will be given priority for release.

Maurer said judges are striving to balance “the very serious and pressing public health concerns that the jail is expressing to us” with “our incredible responsibility of keeping the community safe.”

Maurer said judges also plan to study whether the county has any funds that might be used to pay for electronic home monitoring. Currently, defendants on house arrest cover the cost of their own ankle bracelets and supervision, but some of those released from jail due to COVID-19 concerns may not be able to afford that option, Maurer said.

“Presumably it’s cheaper than keeping them in jail,” she said.

Local courts are taking action following a March 4 order from the Washington Supreme Court, which authorizes judges across the state “to adopt, modify and suspend court rules and orders, and to take further actions concerning court operations, as warranted to address the current health emergency.”

The three courts in Spokane have issued emergency orders postponing trials, requiring that many hearings take place by phone or video conferencing, and suspending many other operations.

Activist groups and legal organizations – including Smart Justice Spokane, the ACLU of Washington, Disability Rights Washington and the Bail Project – sent a joint letter to city and county officials on Wednesday, repeating their calls to drastically reduce the jail population and take other precautions during the pandemic.

“Prisons and jails are particularly ill-suited to address the current pandemic,” the letter states. “People who are incarcerated are an extremely vulnerable demographic when it comes to communicable disease, particularly COVID-19.

“Spokane County Jail is regularly significantly over capacity, forcing those in custody to be housed in extreme proximity. Condemning the individuals housed at (the jail) to possible serious illness or death as a result of this pandemic is unconscionable.”

At about 5 p.m. Wednesday, the county’s website showed 813 people were in custody in the Spokane County Jail and the Geiger Corrections Center. It showed 148 people had been released during the previous 48 hours, while 110 people were booked during the same period.

In a memo to employees on Monday, Mike Sparber, the director of Spokane County Detention Services, announced that friends and relatives would be barred from visiting inmates, among other restrictions aimed at limiting face-to-face contact.

To make up for the ban on in-person visits, county spokesman Jared Webley on Wednesday said officials were working with the jail’s phone vendor, GTL, to allow inmates to place calls free of charge. Usually, phone calls cost inmates 15 cents per minute. Webley said the change could take effect as early as Wednesday evening.

Changes at the county courthouse and the downtown jail have presented challenges for defense attorneys.

Tom Krzyminski, who leads the Spokane County Public Defender’s Office, said his attorneys no longer appear in court alongside their clients for initial hearings following arrests. Instead, public defenders appear before a judge while defendants participate by phone from the jail.

That makes it difficult for public defenders, who already have limited time to communicate with all of their clients, to have privileged discussions during court hearings. In normal circumstances, it’s common for an attorney or client to lean and whisper something about their case, out of earshot of the judge and prosecutor.

“It’s pretty tricky when you’re trying to have those privileged conversations with your client given these circumstances,” Krzyminski said. “A lot of our job is being with a client, being in a courtroom. We’re not set up to have virtual court. In our line of work, it just doesn’t work very easily.”

The public defender’s office also is practicing social distancing and following guidelines from local, state and federal health officials, Krzyminski said. He noted his attorneys use a program called Uptrust to communicate with clients via text messages.

“There’s no outside individuals coming into the office, to include clients,” he said. “We’re urging people to use the phone whenever possible. I’ve encouraged our attorneys to limit their time in the office.”

Meanwhile, private defense attorney Steve Graham, who practices in Spokane and surrounding areas, said he has avoided entering jails and courthouses for about a week. He’s not confident that detention facilities are taking adequate measures to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.

“All the inmates are packed in there like chickens in a crate and people are constantly going in and out, and unlike celebrities and athletes, I am sure inmates are society’s lowest priority in terms of health care,” Graham said in an email.