Jury trials across the state have been halted. Judges will hear only the most pressing of matters, and largely by telephone or video. Most people on probation do not have to meet their officers in person, and arrests in Middlesex County, the state’s largest, will occur only in situations where “there is no public safety alternative."
The coronavirus crisis has thrown the state’s criminal justice system into upheaval, with state courts handling only emergency matters through at least April 6. In an unprecedented move, the state’s highest court this week halted 10 ongoing jury trials, one of them a murder case. They were declared mistrials and will begin anew in late April, when jury trials are tentatively scheduled to restart.
“If it’s nonemergency, it’s just all punted until later,” said Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University. “The Supreme Judicial Court has done a really good job of minimizing in-person contact and clarifying which matters are going to be treated as emergencies, and also in setting up procedures that make video and teleconferencing sort of the default."
The public health crisis is also raising alarms about the impact on jails and prisons. On Thursday, the Suffolk district attorney’s office said prosecutors are identifying vulnerable inmates who “pose no meaningful risk to public safety" for possible release.
“There will be circumstances where the risk to public safety outweighs any justification for release,” Rollins said. “However, we are committed to working with the criminal defense bar in identifying those individuals whose release we deem urgent and necessary for public health reasons.”
The importance of preventing the spread of COVID-19 behind bars leaves “no alternative options,” Rollins said. For those arrested, prosecutors will only seek bail after “critically weighing any public health risk against our legitimate concerns for public safety.”
Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, applauded the effort.
“In order to protect the welfare of an especially vulnerable population, all aspects of the criminal legal system — from policing and pretrial through sentencing, confinement, and release ― must be modified to combat this public health crisis,” she said.
Statewide, bench trials decided by judges, not juries, are continuing for now. Cases that are deemed emergencies and can’t be resolved through a video or telephone conference will move forward in person. Such cases include applications to stop evictions and requests for restraining orders or any concerns related to domestic violence.
“Obviously there are some things that can wait and other things that can’t," Medwed said.
Boston courts will also continue to handle some mental health hearings, arraignments for newly arrested suspects, and probation violations for people accused of a new crime. Otherwise, virtual hearings will be the order of the day.
“The courts are trying to use video and teleconferencing to keep the wheels of justice turning,” Medwed said. “What sort of remains to be seen is not which cases are emergencies, but how is technology up to this crisis."
In Middlesex County, all court dates are suspended, arraignments will be conducted remotely and bail is under review for jail inmates with certain health issues, according to the district attorney’s office.
Restraining orders that are set to expire will automatically remain in effect until a new court date can be held. Emergency restraining orders can be obtained at local police departments.
So far, Massachusetts is among 18 states, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, to restrict or suspend most in-person hearings in its courts. Massachusetts is one of only six states, along with Alaska, Florida, Iowa, North Dakota, and Oklahoma, to halt jury trials, according to the National Center for State Courts.
Connecticut has ordered the majority of its judicial staff to work from home, the center said.
On Wednesday, the Massachusetts Probation Service said that people on probation who normally have to report to their probation officer in person will now do so by telephone.
One segment of the court system that has remained open — clerk’s offices — are being inundated with calls.
“We are just doing our very best to get out the orders that give people guidance,” said Jennifer Donahue, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Trial Courts.
Federal courts remain open but are limiting the matters they handle and switching to telephone and video hearings when practical. Jury trials have been postponed. US Attorney Andrew Lelling said his office is carrying on “amidst this unprecedented crisis.”
“While many are teleworking, the office remains open and we continue to investigate and prosecute cases,” he said. “The court has implemented guidelines regarding court proceedings, however this does not impact the work we continue to do.”