Summit County courts go virtual, officials work to reduce prison populations
BRECKENRIDGE — While the dark cloud of speedy trial issues looms overhead, representatives of the area’s justice system continue to take additional steps to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
That includes potentially helping some felons get out of prison early, according to officials. Last week, Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order to temporarily suspend some regulatory statutes regarding prisoners to help keep incarcerated populations healthy.
Fifth Judicial District Attorney Bruce Brown said it’s the first time in his career as a prosecutor that he’s initiated proceedings to free an inmate from prison, the early stages of what he said could be hundreds of releases.
“I’m talking with the director of the parole board to establish that,” Brown said. “It’s a collaborative process at a local and state level, and getting agencies to try and work quickly and effectively to decrease prison populations. … I’d expect over the coming months, we’d have released inmates in the low hundreds.”
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Brown noted that several of the state’s prisons already are facing overpopulation, within 1% of their max populations. The goal is to reduce those numbers to lower the chances of the COVID-19 virus spreading if it does make its way into detentions facilities.
The Colorado Department of Corrections — which oversees the state’s prison operations — already has reported that at least three employees have tested positive for COVID-19, though no inmates have tested positive so far.
Brown said individuals like himself and the Colorado State Board of Parole are largely looking at individuals who were sentenced to prison over the past few years on lower-level felonies to see if they pose a public safety risk, or if they might be eligible for release.
Of course, many individuals currently serving prison sentences are doing so because they represent public safety risks. There are others — even individuals with felony convictions — that might fit the bill, including individuals incarcerated on drug convictions, property crimes and people with past probation violations.
Individuals who are nearing the end of their sentence could see their parole hearings pushed up, and other inmates no longer will be required to complete what used to be requisite in-prison programs for diversion.
“The key component for me is helping the parole board by giving them information on offenders, where they might not know as much about their background as we do, and may not have the Summit County community perspective for these people,” Brown said. “We can give them information so they don’t release people back into the community who are likely to cause harm to other people.”
While the push to free inmates from Department of Corrections is relatively new, county jails around the state have been actively working to reduce their own populations for weeks, including in Summit County.
Even before the outbreak began in Colorado, detentions officials already were screening new arrestees for symptoms of COVID-19. Grouped with concerted efforts from the area’s law enforcement to serve summons in lieu of arrests, and judges and attorneys pushing to get individuals out on bond, the population has dropped dramatically.
On March 3, there were 50 inmates in the Summit County Detention Facility. That number dropped to 26 by March 25.
Brown noted that some individuals who were close to finishing their jail sentences would be let out early while others would be converted to electronic monitoring (ankle monitors) or furloughed — released and asked to come back at a later date, similar to a stay some might see on their initial sentence before being incarcerated.
“We’ve decreased jail populations by about 50%,” 5th Judicial District Chief Judge Mark Thompson said. “We’re really being proactive to keep our jails clean and free from this virus.”
In addition to lowering inmate populations at jails and prisons, officials are also making changes to their daily operations to help mitigate person-to-person contact.
The District Attorney’s office has temporarily lifted the restrictions on who is allowed to enter guilty pleas by mail, court staff has been reduced to a skeleton crew, and judges have transferred any hearings they’re allowed to telephone or video.
Thompson said the courts were set to begin experimenting with a new “virtual courtroom” next week, which would see judges, defendants and attorneys all streaming together face-to-face, at least on screen.
“It’s as close to a virtual courtroom as we can get, giving everyone the opportunity to be heard while still trying to keep everybody safe and isolated throughout this process,” Thompson said. “So we’ll see how Monday goes.”
It’s clear the COVID-19 pandemic has put immense pressure on the criminal justice system to keep things moving.
“I’ve been through civil unrest, mass fires and earthquakes, and I’ve seen court systems adopt and adjust to the demands of those extraordinary events,” Brown said. “But I’ve never seen a virus like this. It’s very hard to keep people safe, and we don’t know how long it could go on for. It’s a unique circumstance, and it’s tested my entire staff and the entire court system in ways we could not have envisioned.”
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