Like everything in our community, the court system is undergoing temporary changes in response to COVID-19. We are taking steps to try to limit the need for the public to come and go from the county courthouse. The District Attorney’s Office is operating on a skeleton crew by reducing the amount of people working in the office and having prosecutors and staff work remotely if possible. Video arraignments have been set up five days a week in court for in-custody prisoners so that individuals who are at the Cumberland County Jail can have their court proceeding without stepping into the courthouse. We are all taking this situation very seriously in order to limit any potential spread of COVID-19.

Law enforcement officials are also taking steps to limit their possible exposure of COVID-19 to officers and the public. When appropriate, police are writing summons, meaning giving a date to show up to court to address an allegation that a law was broken, as opposed to placing people under arrest. Arrests will be made if a person is posing a public safety risk, such as in cases involving domestic violence, gross sexual assault, drug trafficking, and homicide. Law enforcement is exercising discretion where appropriate because of the necessity to limit the possible spread of COVID-19. Despite this possible exposure, police continue to be the heroes among us who show up to work every day. We all owe them a debt of gratitude. They continue to protect our community in the face of ever changing threats. They live the Bill Belichick mantra of “No Days Off.”

On March 13th, the COVID-19 threat led the judicial branch to take took the step to shut down most of the criminal proceedings related to a person who allegedly broke the law. All summons arraignments that were set for March and April have been given new dates after May 1st. Dispositional conferences, which are court dates in which the prosecutor and the defense attorney meet with a judge to try to resolve the case prior to trial, have been postponed until after May 1st. All motion hearings and trials have also been placed on hold. The only cases in the criminal justice system that are being heard are arraignments for people who have been arrested and are held in-custody and motions to amend bail for people at the Cumberland County Jail. Everything else is at a standstill.

Due to this, the District Attorney’s Office, with help from members of the criminal defense bar and the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, has taken a necessary step to review the bail status of the individuals who are being held pretrial at the Cumberland County Jail. When a person’s due process rights, meaning their right to a speedy trial, their right to confrontation against their accuser, their right to know the evidence against them, their right to an attorney, and their right to fair trial, are being delayed, the prosecutors must do what is fair, what is right, and what is in the interests of justice.

At the same time, we as prosecutors know that our role within the criminal justice system is one that is to uphold the law, protect public safety, speak for victims, and help to reduce recidivism of defendants. Given that, in these bail reviews, we are striking a balance between our role as a prosecutor in protecting public safety and ensuring a person shows up to court, while also protecting that individual’s due process rights. Sometimes we will agree to set conditions of release on bail for a defendant or to lower the cash component of the bail so that a person is released from custody, but other times we will not and it will be up to the court to decide on the defendant’s motion to amend bail. There is no simple solution for each defendant and each must be examined on a case-by-case basis. Too many factors need to be considered to make a just decision.

People need to know that public safety and public health are two things that are not mutually exclusive and are co-existing. Prosecutors, law enforcement, defense attorneys, and the court are all working together to ensure that the public is protected both in and outside of the jail. The threat of COVID-19 has brought about new circumstances when it is necessary to come together as a community as opposed to trying to work against each other for our own individual interests. We are all in this together.

— Special to the Press Herald


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