Justice going digital: Travis County courts conduct first virtual plea hearing

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The criminal justice system is a hands-on place.

“We’re leaning over the bench to talk to the judge. We’re in the faces of court reporters and clerks. We’re talking and whispering with our clients,” Attorney and Retired District Court Judge Charlie Baird said.

He’s spent nearly 40 years in and out of area courts, but he’s never seen anything impact the system like COVID-19.

“There has been nothing comparable to this under any circumstances that I can recall,” Baird said.

Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said they are doing everything they can do keep the wheels of justice turning, while keeping everyone safe.

“The folks who have to make the court system work… are now focused entirely on jail cases,” said Moore.

She said bond-setting procedures and plea hearings are the primary concerns, as jury trials have been postponed for weeks.

“The IT people have been working with the sheriff to get rooms set up in the jail, Moore said. “So that inmates can be brought into a room and then enter their plea — where nobody goes to courtroom, which is pretty amazing and very useful.”

Last week, they conducted the first virtual plea hearing through the app Zoom. The proceeding was then live-streamed on YouTube to preserve the right of the public to view the process.

She said this week district court proceedings should be up and running for at least five district courts.

This new capability could last beyond the county’s response to COVID-19.

“We’ve long had a problem of the transportation costs that are incurred by having to bring inmates in from Del Valle to the courts,” Moore said, explaining that it makes up a significant portion of the Sheriff’s office budget. We’ve often thought could be reduced by remote proceedings, and I think this will help move us along.”

Keeping COVID-19 out of jails

Concerns about COVID-19 spreading quickly in Texas jails are becoming a reality, with the first confirmed case in a Harris County jail and around 30 more inmates there showing symptoms.

Right now, the Travis County Sheriff’s Office is reporting no confirmed cases. They do have 18 inmates in quarantine.

A spokesperson for the office said, “many of these inmates are in quarantine because they refused to answer CDC guideline questions at intake. They’re kept in quarantine until medical staff determines they can be cleared. Inmates in quarantine are housed in single-occupancy cells and are seen twice a day by medical professionals.”

Starting this week, every new inmate will be placed in quarantine for 10 to 14 days.

They also report that “no one, employee, police officer or arrestee” is allowed inside the facility if their temperature is above 99.6 degrees.

“We ask screening questions according to CDC guidelines,” the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, 27 TCSO employees, corrections officers, deputies have been tested for COVID-19. 12 of those tests came back negative, and the rest are pending. The spokesperson said those employees will not come back to work until they’re cleared by a physician.

In response to questions about hygiene, the spokesperson said, “Soap is available to inmates in cells and day rooms. It is the preferred method of cleaning/protection by medical professionals. Hand sanitizer is available in common areas and hallways where there’s officer supervision.”

Personal bond orders

Travis County officials have been working to reduce the jail population by granting the automatic release of some non-violent felons with personal recognizance bonds.

The D.A.’s office reports a drop in jail population from roughly 2,250 inmates last month, to a count of 1,660 on Monday.

Meanwhile, over the weekend, Governor Abbott issued an executive order barring suspects accused of, or previously convicted of, violent crimes from being released on a personal bond.

MORE: Criminal justice reform groups speak out against Gov. Abbott’s executive order

The mandate, Abbott said, is to prevent the release of “dangerous criminals” from Texas jails.

Moore said Travis County’s automatic personal bond order still stands, though, because they had already written in several exceptions.

“We are not agreeing to the release of any person who we believe poses a public safety risk to this community,” Moore said.

She explained the county’s pre-trial services workers were already looking at criminal history as a part of their screening for the automatic personal bonds. But now, under the governor’s orders, if someone has a violent offense on their record, that would disqualify them from the automatic personal bond.

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