FLORENCE — The criminal justice system is changing dramatically in Pinal County in the wake of the COVID-19 health emergency.
Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer said it will not be possible to convene a jury or a grand jury for at least the next 30 to 60 days.
Friday afternoon Pinal County Superior Court Presiding Judge Stephen McCarville issued an administrative order over all courts in Pinal County that allows defendants and their attorneys to waive their presence in court for every non-essential hearing.
“So at all pretrial conferences and all reviews, the defendant’s and their attorney’s presence is waived, unless they get permission from the court to appear,” Volkmer said.
Basically this means all cases are on hold unless the need for major hearings arise in the cases.
The county attorney added that the court system is also prioritizing hearings to determine which are necessary — like protection orders or Department of Child Safety cases when a child is being removed from a home. Also arraignments are top priority and will continue.
“It’s sort of the legal minimums that are set to ensure that we are complying and not deviating from those legal minimums,” Volkmer said.
The right to a speedy trial is not being suspended. The right is primarily held by a defendant but victims also may have a right to a speedy trial.
“While I’m not saying that it is suspended, I think it will have more of an impact on our victims than it will on our defendants. For the next 30 and probably 60 days, there will not be any jury trials,” Volkmer said. “We are afraid that we are not going to be able to get juries in. Even if we do get juries, we are not going to be able to maintain the social distancing.”
Via email on Friday afternoon, Judge McCarville wrote, “The Arizona Supreme Court Administrative Order 2020-48 suspends the requirements to hold criminal trials within the time frame set forth in Rule 8 of the Arizona Rules of Criminal Procedure. Further, no new juries will be empaneled until April 17.”
Volkmer added that the hardship issues will clearly mount as elderly people can’t get out and families need a care taker at home if they have children.
Volkmer said there is a county criminal justice team that has been assembled to maintain and deal with the COVID-19 issue as it impacts the system.
“There are representatives from the jail, the Sheriff’s Office, I was there from the County Attorney’s Office, the public defender and her top assistant, we had people from Court Admin and Judge McCarville’s office. We were discussing issues like preliminary hearings and those type of things to keep some sort of continuity moving forward if at all possible,” Volkmer said.
Arraignments will not likely be made by video as the jail is just across the parking lot from the Superior Court, according to Volkmer. Justice court arraignments already take place mostly by video for misdemeanor offenses.
In his statement Friday, McCarville wrote, “A majority of the hearings shall be conducted by video. However, there are a few exceptions as outlined in the Administrative Order being issued by my office today.”
The big change is in the way a person will be charged with a felony offense.
For many years Pinal County has relied on a grand jury indictment system. With an inability to convene a grand jury due to the health emergency, the county will change to a preliminary hearing type of charging system. This will actually put a heavier burden on the court system as more time and work will be needed by attorneys, court reporters, bailiffs and judges.
Volkmer said he does not see the county jail suddenly letting lesser offenders out in the wake of this emergency.
“I pride ourselves on not having people in our jails that don’t need to be. One of the things that the sheriff and I routinely talk about is reducing our jail population. Our jail population has reduced by almost 250 detainees on any given day. We and the courts work hard to make sure that we don’t have low-level offenders in there unless they pose a risk to themselves or to the public in general,” Volkmer said.
He said some detainees in the jail do have serious health issues and some of them are being released for treatment in other places if they can be safely held. One defendant is currently on a ventilator.
“We are looking at transferring him to a hospital where he can be properly supervised and get medical care. We are not putting any high-risk people at any risk of harm to the public,” he said.
Volkmer said some of the lower priority offenders may have delays in their prosecution for a while as the emergency remains in effect. He said serious offenses will be dealt with on a more normal timeline.
“If we deem that you pose a risk to public safety, then we are pursuing those cases. If it is a less risky case, we are not abandoning it but it is not taking the priority that these other cases are. It is an attempt to reduce the number of court hearings and interactions. It will reduce the potential spread of this contagion,” Volkmer said.
Lauren Reimer, spokesperson with the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, said PCSO has asked city leaders to use their best judgement with prisoners they arrest and plan on booking, and to only book those who they consider absolutely necessary.
“Inmates who present symptoms prior to the booking process will be turned away to be taken to the nearest health care provider for testing. We are not releasing any inmates already confined,” Reimer said in an email to PinalCentral Friday. “Within the jail, all inmates are being screened for signs of illness by our medical staff.”
When he was first elected, Volkmer said he gave law enforcement officers the discretion to give offenders a citation versus an arrest.
“More than 75% of our marijuana cases are citations anyway. Law enforcement still has that ability. If the person needs to go to jail, send them to jail. The circumstances are different today than it was three years ago when we implemented this. I presume that we will probably see more citations. I will not tell law enforcement not to arrest somebody if they deem them to be a public safety danger,” said Volkmer.
Volkmer said there is a lighter amount of crime recently mainly because people are not out and about. Bars are closed and people are staying home more during the health emergency.
“With the COVID there’s just not as many people going to the bars and getting drunk,” he said.
As far as what might change inside the Pinal County Courthouse, McCarville wrote, “The public is allowed into the building, but the court retains the right to limit the number of people in each courtroom. There are no plans to screen the public for health issues at this time. However, they are informed that if they have been ill, or possibly exposed to COVID-19, they should not enter the building. All persons entering the building are screened for security issues.”