COVID court closures could trickle down for Fresno County

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- The burden of COVID cases has Fresno County courts cutting down on public access and delaying a lot of cases, and a coming court backlog could affect the entire community.

There's not a lot of activity at the courthouse these days. Once busy hallways are mostly empty and nearly every hearing is by Zoom.

As of this week, the court postponed a lot of new court cases to cut down on potential exposure.

But while the cases are on hold, crime isn't.

"Arrests don't stop," said Sheriff Margaret Mims. "They keep coming. So they keep coming in the front door of the jail and we're at capacity every single day and so we do have releases."

The jail has released 128 inmates for overcrowding in the last week and dozens more under the county's $0 bail policy.

Sheriff Margaret Mims says the backlog includes about 400 sentenced inmates -- about 17% of the jail's entire population -- who should be in state prison, but the state prison system isn't accepting new inmates during the worst of the COVID outbreak.
The system is plugged up.

Even though the county's $0 bail policy limits who can get out without posting bond, just on Tuesday they've had to release an auto theft suspect, an ID theft suspect, and a man who failed to register as a sex offender.

"I wish we didn't have to release any inmates out of our jail and could hold all of them accountable until they could go to court," the sheriff said.

Mims says she's trying to be careful to limit the spread of the virus in the jail, but letting out inmates usually creates more work for law enforcement, especially when they later fail to appear in court.

Defense attorney Marc Kapetan says it trickles down, so the burden lands on the district attorney's office and then back on police and the courts.
"The net effect is that now the jails are going to be overburdened because we no longer have prisons to send people to," Kapetan said. "And so, everybody's in a Catch-22 and the citizens of Fresno are the ones that are going to suffer because of it."

The court's latest emergency order is effective until further notice, so there's no definitive timeline for when things might get back to normal at the courts or at the jail.
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