Island County’s law and justice system isn’t immune from the effects of the coronavirus.
A series of changes have been announced in the courts to reduce the number of people in jail, eliminate trials in the short term and lessen the amount of time anyone has to spend in court.
Monday, Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks explained in a memo the “extraordinary measures” his office is taking to respond to the outbreak. He convened a meeting with other law-and-justice officials Friday to discuss what can be done to help slow the transmission of COVID-19.
“People will still be held accountable,” he said. “It’s a choice between swifter justice and protecting people in the community, and I felt protecting people was more important.”
One of the top concerns is reducing the jail population. Chief Jose Briones advised that reducing the number of inmates by 16 to a total of 40 would allow sufficient space for quarantine areas for men and woman suspected of having the virus, according to the memo.
As a result, prosecutors are reviewing the jail roster and criminal cases to present Briones with a list of inmates who pose the least risk to public safety and can be released. Banks said the inmates will include those accused of committing property, drug and other non-violent crimes.
In addition, some nonviolent inmates who are serving sentences will be released, but they will have to return someday to complete the term.
Prosecutors will hold off on charging any new felonies that aren’t sex crimes or violence crimes, Banks said. The charges will be prepared but held in abeyance for at least six weeks. Prosecutors will not seek bail on defendants arrested on felonies other than violence and sex crimes.
Banks said his office is working with defense attorneys to delay hearings in pending felony and juvenile cases for eight weeks, but a state Supreme Court order gives superior court judges the authority to suspend court rules — such as the right to speedy trial — as a way to address the public health emergency.
In district court, prosecutors will only seek bail in domestic violence cases and for repeat DUI offenders.
District Court Judge Bill Hawkins suspended all jury trials in misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor cases.
Attorney Christon Skinner sent out a letter to members of the Island County Bar Association Friday to encourage lawyers and their clients to minimize contact between people by attending hearings over the telephone through the “court call system” or possibly a videoconferencing system in the future.
How much of an impact the coronavirus will have on the justice system may ultimately depend on how long the measures are deemed necessary. The impacts may be very real for both victims and the accused.
Oak Harbor resident Charles Ringer Jr., for example, was scheduled to go on trial this month on charges of child rape and kidnapping. The prosecutor and his attorney, Skinner, agreed to continue the trial to June 23.
Appearing in court via video from the jail Monday — the usual system — Kevin F. Brown objected to his case being delayed by two months, saying he didn’t want to give up any of his rights. He was charged with burglary in the first degree while armed with a deadly weapon and assault in the second degree.
Superior Court Judge Vickie Churchill, however, said the public health emergency gives her the authority to suspend his speedy trial right. Also, Churchill pointed out that Brown was recently appointed a new attorney, Margot Carter, who needed time to prepare his defense. Carter said it may be difficult to interview witnesses since they might be reluctant to meet during the outbreak.