As coronavirus fears bear down on Philly courts and jails, DA Krasner rethinks bail, charging

HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.
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As the number of known coronavirus cases in Philadelphia reached eight Sunday, double Saturday’s total, prosecutors and defense lawyers expressed grave concerns about returning Monday morning to Philadelphia’s criminal courthouse, known for its crowded jury room, packed elevators and cramped courtrooms.

Unlike a growing number of other jurisdictions, Philadelphia’s First Judicial District is so far keeping courts open for business, and even calling jurors to report for duty.

On Sunday, the Defenders Union wrote a letter pleading with the courts to rethink those plans, sharply reduce the number of people in jails and juvenile placement facilities, and move to a “full shutdown of court operations, including preliminary hearings, trials, violations hearings, and status listings.”

And District Attorney Larry Krasner confirmed that his office is already revising its policies around charging and bail, acting in a growing recognition that the coronavirus poses a very real public safety problem.

“There are active conversations between different entities about what comes next,” Krasner said. “I look forward to the decisions the police are going to make about arrests. In light of whatever they choose to do, we are going to have to make decisions about whether we charge or not, and we are going to have to make decisions about whether to seek to have people in custody if they are charged.”

A memo from his charging chief, obtained by The Inquirer, advised prosecutors only to make specific bail requests in serious cases, including gun and domestic violence cases.

The First Judicial District is also making changes.

Judges stayed late Friday evening to sign off on about 100 early parole petitions. Administrative Judge Jacqueline Allen, in an internal memo, advised judges not to schedule status hearings, to resolve more matters by video, and to postpone hearings that could be delayed until at least June 1. And in a public announcement, the court administration promised to provide for social distancing in the jury room. A court spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment, but Sunday evening the court updated its coronavirus response to note that it would limit jurors to fewer than 200.

“The Administrative Governing Board has been monitoring the situation and discussing options should a curtailment of operations be warranted. This remains a fluid situation,” President Judge Idee C. Fox said in the notice.

Krasner acknowledged that maintaining a safe distance in the courtroom seemed all but impossible.

“We all have a role as public servants to try to protect the public,” he said. “Hopefully, if we can get all the partners together, we can find some probably unheard-of but also very constructive ways to keep the public safe on more than one front.”

Federal courts in Pennsylvania have stopped mounting jury trials, as have Common Pleas courts in Montgomery, Bucks and Delaware Counties, and all courts in New Jersey. In Philadelphia, the pressures on the system may be mounting. Two judges last week confirmed that they were under quarantine due to possible exposure. The 14th floor of the District Attorney’s Office was also closed for deep cleaning after a lawyer fell ill and three staffers were sent home to self-quarantine.

Though the prison system has quarantined new arrivals — including those serving weekend sentences, who have not yet been excused — no staff or prisoners had known exposure to the coronavirus as of Sunday evening, according to Eric Hill, the business agent for the correctional officers union. Hill provided emails showing that he had requested information about the prisons’ contingency plans, but was denied due to security concerns.

“What’s going to happen if staffing levels are severely depleted?” he asked, adding that he has no answers.

In a statement, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said arrest practices were under review but did not commit to specific changes.

“We recognize that some police departments have made modifications to their arrest procedures in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19," the statement read. "We are continuing to discuss all options to ensure the safest outcomes possible for everyone. Of course this may change in a moment’s notice, as we are meeting regularly and resource needs are rapidly changing.”

The public defenders’ letter, signed by 133 lawyers, urged “a response that reflects the urgency of this pandemic.” They asked for relaxed probation rules, including more phone reporting and a moratorium on detaining absconders, and emergency hearings to release people held on bail or detainers.

“In the last 24 hours alone, there has been a huge national push to keep people from leaving their homes," they wrote. "However, this system is telling our clients that they must appear in court or a warrant will be issued for their arrest.”

Staff writer Chris Palmer contributed to this article.

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