Following a recent surge in closures and a push for social distancing, Oklahoma courts and jailss are taking steps to minimize any possible exposure to COVID-19.
As of Thursday afternoon, Carter County Sheriff Chris Bryant said all visitation at the county jail has ceased. “Whether it’s attorneys coming in and out— everything will have to be administered by phone calls back and forth. They’ll have to make arrangements for phone calls,” Bryant said.
One day later, on March 13, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections issued a statement canceling all visitation and volunteer access to state prisons. “This decision is necessary to keep staff, inmates and volunteers safe from the spread of COVID-19 inside a facility,” the statement read.
The ODOC is reportedly utilizing its “Management of Pandemic Influenza” procedure as the basis for developing a response to COVID-19. The response includes screening all new inmate arrivals for symptoms of the illness and suspending all inmate security movements.
According to the statement, the ODOC is currently working to expand options allowing family members to connect with inmates.
Oklahoma district courts are also having to explore alternative ways to interact with inmates and carry out constitutionally required procedures in a response to an executive order issued by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt on Sunday.
The joint order between the Supreme Court of the State of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal appeals suspends most court procedures for the next 30 days to avoid risks to judges, court clerks, court employees and the public.
District Attorney Craig Ladd said he met with the district judge and the special district judge on Monday to discuss the different methods the court can use to minimize individuals’ possible exposure to COVID-19, while also still complying with constitutional requirements.
According to the order, all district courts in Oklahoma are required to cancel jury terms for the next 30 days and may not summon jurors for the next 30 days — which Ladd said will make going forward with the May jury docket difficult.
While this would prolong some cases, Ladd said moving the jury docket would not be a constitutional violation.
“We can do that and not violate anybody’s right to a speedy trial because we keep our cases on a very short leash anyway,” Ladd said. “We move cases very quick in Carter County, so bumping that to the August jury trial docket won’t violate anybody’s right to a speedy trial.”
Finding ways to ensure individuals arrested within the next 30 days go before a judge within 48 hours after their arrest, and other related procedures will likely be the bigger hurdles to address.
According to the executive order, all deadlines and procedures in any civil, juvenile or criminal case shall be suspended for 30 days — exempting those which would violate an individual’s constitutional rights.
The order also states that assigned judges should reschedule all non-jury trial settings, hearings and pretrial settings, adding that emergency matters, arraignments, bond hearings and required proceedings of any kind shall be handled on a case by case basis by the assigned judge.
“Hearings within 48 hours to be advised with what they’re charged with and for a bond to be set and things like that — that’s still going to happen,” Ladd said.
Ladd said initial appearances have been held using video conferences on a television or laptop in the past and the court is looking at utilizing this sort of technology for a variety of procedures while the executive order is in effect.
Some potential examples include preliminary hearing conferences, pleas of guilty in cases and with cases on the misdemeanor disposition docket.
“Any type of preceding in a criminal case, that we could cover through video we’re going to try to do that,” Ladd said. “We have a camera over in the jail where inmates could be brought in front of the camera and then they could have a live discussion with the judge and interaction with the judge.”
Ladd said the methods to be used in the court’s response to COVID-19 are still being ironed out, however, ensuring individuals’ constitutional rights are not violated during the process is vital.
“There’s a lot of bugs and wrinkles we’re going to have to work out,” Ladd said. “It’s going to change the way we’re doing business but at the same time, we’re honoring their constitutional rights.”
According to the executive order, anyone scheduled for a court appearance or seeking emergency relief should contact their attorney.
If you do not have an attorney, call the court clerk’s office in the county where you are required to appear. The Carter County Court Clerk’s office can be reached at (580) 223-5253.
Each week the ODOC agency director will reassess the need to keep visitors and volunteers from entering state prison facilities. For the most up-to-date information, the public can call (405) 425-2256 to hear a recorded message or can visit ODOC’s website, http://doc.ok.gov.