By Mano Raju
The murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, is a brutal and horrific example of how government institutions fund and sanction violence against people of color in this country. While Chauvin’s conviction means that there was some accountability in this particular case, it does nothing to alleviate the normalized institutional harm that continues to occur every day at all levels of the criminal justice system.
We don’t have to look far to find it.
Here in San Francisco, more than 100 people are still languishing in jail awaiting trial after the last day they are to be legally brought to justice – the majority have been waiting for more than a month, and some for many months after the death. deadline. The illegal pre-trial incarceration of hundreds of presumed innocent people is not just a matter of morals, ethics and human rights – the courts in San Francisco blatantly violate the law.
I just finished reading a letter from one of our clients who has been locked up in our prisons for months past the legal deadline for his trial to proceed. He describes the current conditions as “being housed in a federal super max level 5 prison” and during the limited time they are out of their cell daily “for an hour, 8 people are forced to share 4 phones and 3 showers … shave, cut your hair, find a book ”and make personal or legal calls.
This man lost family members while in prison, and he was unable to mourn with his family or keep in touch with his children.
Unfortunately, he is not alone.
People aren’t just being held illegally in San Francisco jails, they’re being held in solitary confinement due to the prison’s COVID-19 precautions – no family visits, no programming, 23-24 hours a day in their cell, and no court time. These punitive conditions are damaging psychologically and physically. While the San Francisco Sheriff has said he plans to resume visitations and end lockdowns at the prisons at some point, no official date has been set.
These legal delays do not occur in our neighboring counties. Contra Costa has held 103 jury trials since May 2020. Sacramento has held at least 118 trials since mid-March 2020. In contrast, San Francisco has only held 10 criminal jury trials in the past year, nearly ten times less than these peer countries.
We have learned from our neighbors that with the right precautions we can safely hold jury trials during COVID. We are not aware of any reports of COVID outbreaks linked to trials in several of these counties.
The reason for the massive backlog in San Francisco is that the courts have not allocated enough courtrooms. At the courtroom, at least twelve courtrooms have the capacity to hold a socially distanced trial, but the court has only opened four courtrooms for trials. Four other courtrooms are used as “satellites” where people can zoom in on the trials in progress, but these satellites are almost always empty. The Civic Center Courthouse at 400 McAllister Street now handles misdemeanor jury trials in two courtrooms for people who are out of custody. He also held a deportation jury trial and proceeded with jury selection for a civil trial which was subsequently settled. However, citing unfounded security concerns, the court does not hold any felony trials at the Civic Center for those in custody.
Other counties have used alternative venues for trials – San Mateo uses its convention center and Sonoma uses its county fairground. Although this Court has received emergency funding to address its huge backlog, it has not used any other venue to hold trials, nor made any documented effort to seek them out. We know this because my office has submitted a criminal record request for all files relating to the Court’s efforts to find alternative locations and to address its staff shortage, and the Court has informed us that there is no such thing as a no such records.
With safe jury trials in neighboring counties, open businesses, and widespread immunizations – including 72% of San Franciscans over 16 with at least one dose of the vaccine and 49% percent having received the two doses – this Court has no justification for these delays. More courtrooms should be opened for trials, and there should be public access via YouTube so that people can attend them remotely – something this Court has only done sporadically as many other countries do. ‘have done from the start.
People who are presumed innocent and caged should not be left in prison for a day longer than the law allows. When that right is denied – as was the case for Kelief Browder, a young black man accused of stealing a backpack and locked up on Rikers Island without trial – the consequences can be fatal and tragic.
Public defenders are in court every day to fight for our clients’ right to a jury trial. But so far our Superior Court refuses to honor that right, generating a huge backlog of cases and incarcerating members of our community for months after the law said they could be detained.
A backlog is no reason to keep a human being in jail for a single day – let alone well over a hundred people in jail for months under lockdown conditions. COVID-19 is also no excuse for cruelty and bureaucratic inertia. We must do better.
Mano Raju is San Francisco’s elected public defender.