The COVID-19 pandemic has seemingly stopped everything — school, nonessential gatherings and business and social practices, but it has not stopped crime. In the month of March, there were 54 shots-fired incidents, with 10 homicides and nine injuries. We continue to respond to these crime scenes and file charges to hold violent actors in custody. Hundreds of other felony crimes were also committed in March, which would normally be filed with the defendants ordered to come to court.
But these are not normal times. The urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us to adjust our practices to reduce the number of people who are required to come to the courthouse, utilize technology to reduce crowded courtrooms and build new alternatives to jail as our only pretrial detention alternative.
Necessity and urgency can stimulate innovations and some of these new adaptations in the criminal justice systems may prove to be important and permanent changes.
Last week, our office officially launched an online process for obtaining domestic violence protection orders — an innovation we had been planning for several months before COVID-19. People living in fear of an intimate partner no longer need to come to the courthouse, and this new process could serve people far beyond the current crisis.
Crowded courtrooms have been a long-accepted feature of the criminal justice system. Each day, administrative staff and attorneys are required to work in courtrooms that are not designed for social distancing. Two weeks ago, a defendant spat at two members of my office, a repulsive assault in normal times but that today carries additional concerns. One way to reduce the crowds in court is through greater use of telephonic and video appearances — overdue innovations that have been more widely used in other jurisdictions. Judicial leaders have also worked to consolidate and reduce the overall number of court hearings requiring the physical presence of participants — not just the attorneys and staff, but also those accused of or charged with crimes.
But perhaps the most significant efforts have been working with the courts, jail administrators and public defenders to help reduce our jail population. As we have seen from other jurisdictions, it is imperative that the jails remain safe for both corrections officers and inmates. Some advocates have called for us to empty the jails in response to this pandemic. We can reduce the number of people in jail awaiting trial, but it will never be zero. Many people in jail awaiting trial are accused of horrific crimes, have dangerous backgrounds, or have a demonstrated history of running from the law.
About 70% of the people in jail are awaiting trial on a felony charge. We are assessing each individual in jail to determine who can be released pretrial without endangering public safety. Our careful review has reduced the average daily population by more than 200 people in the past several weeks, contributing to an overall reduction of more than 500 people from the jail population. This has resulted in increased protections for corrections officers and inmates, allowing more space for social distancing.
Some people awaiting trial in jail suffer from behavioral-health challenges and are homeless, and ensuring they have necessary supports as an alternative to jail is especially challenging right now, as many support systems are harder than usual to access. But an adaptation of the LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program, called CO-LEAD, tapping into newly available hotel capacity due to the impact of COVID-19, along with a temporary intensive case management team, will create a support structure for 200 to 500 vulnerable individuals over the next three months. People released to CO-LEAD will be given a court date to return and face their charges several months off, and with the support of a case manager, many can await the resumption of the court process in temporary housing with a support team, not the jail.
The pandemic has challenged criminal justice leaders here and across America to rethink our operations and to emerge from this crisis with more reliance on technology, less insistence on personal appearances for most court hearings, and even with new and effective pretrial alternatives to jail.
We are a long way from the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the innovative steps our King County justice system is taking in response can propel us into a more modern era of criminal justice — all while maintaining public safety. That, we believe, is doing justice.