SOUTHERN INDIANA — Courts in Southern Indiana and statewide have had to modify operations to respond to COVID-19. In Clark County, some of the changes could be permanent.
On March 13, the Indiana Supreme Court approved a petition for Clark County Circuit Courts to temporarily operate on a limited basis to help prevent the spread of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus; a similar order was approved for Floyd County on March 19 and on April 3, the Indiana Supreme Court extended the orders in all courts for another month.
This has meant a suspension of all criminal and civil matters except for emergencies and to ensure defendants’ rights. Friends and family not involved in a case are not allowed to attend hearings, and all jury trials have been suspended for now.
Clark Count has implemented video conferencing hearings with inmates — rather than be brought up to court, the inmates are taken to one of seven laptops in the jail, but outside of the pods. They can see and speak to the defense attorney, judge and prosecutor, who are all on their own separate computers.
The system they use is called Court Call and costs $600 per month, which the courts are paying.
“It’s worked out really well,” Vicki Carmichael, Clark County Circuit No. 4 judge and Clark County presiding judge, said. “And I think most of us plan to continue to use it after, especially with the inmates because it reduces the security risk of transporting them through the main hallway.”
Scottie Maples, chief deputy with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, said the video conferencing has cut down on the manpower previously needed to transport those in jail to court every day.
“To take an inmate to court, you’ve got to take them out of the section, handcuff them, walk them up there, do the court proceeding, walk him or her back downstairs, take the cuffs and shackles off, pat them down and redistribute them back into their respective pods,” Maples said.
“Whereas now you take an inmate out of a pod and walk him 15 feet away from it and sit him in front of a computer and then walk him back.”
Carmichael said it’s something the courts had previously talked about doing but decided against it.
“We had talked about it before and we kind of felt like there wasn’t really a need for it and its maybe better to have people in court and see them in person,” she said. “So we didn’t do it but now that we’ve had to so we’ve realized that ‘hey this works pretty well,’ you still see the person, you see how they are reacting to things.”
If a defense attorney needs to speak to a client alone, all others leave the courtroom so they can talk in privacy over the video.
Clark County Circuit Court No. 1 Judge Drew Adams said he’s seen about a 75% decrease in the normal amount of cases that would come through before. He’s not only meeting with inmates via video conference, but trying to schedule others which are nonessential to video conference — proving parties with the opportunity to do a virtual mediation or settlement conference.
He’s also been able to handle some plea agreements this way — one day last week, he did eight in one morning.
With specialty courts, it’s a little tricker but still working. Adams runs the Clark County Addiction Treatment and Support Program (CCATS), which helps those with minor offenses get help with addiction and mental health issues to help break their cycle of incarceration. He also co-presides with Floyd County Superior Court No. 3 Judge Maria Granger over the Veterans Court of Southern Indiana.
Participation in these programs include meeting in front of the judge monthly, meeting with case managers and attending Alcoholics Anonymous and or Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
“We have been conducting those through Zoom calls — the court session and case managers have been corresponding and doing zoom for their meetings,” Adams said. “And participants have been doing virtual NA, AA meetings, as well as a lot of their therapists or groups through a virtual window.”
In Floyd County, Circuit Court Judge Terrence Cody said the judicial system has ben working together with attorneys and the prosecutor’s office to get cases handled through phone, email or through attorneys whenever possible.
They may start using Zoom; they had concerns initially due to potential safety risks associated with the software, but are working with the county IT department to facilitate that.
Offenders are meeting with their probation officers face-to-face for drug testing and other critical matters, but otherwise they’re communicating through phone or email. Some probation and court staff are alternating coming into the office, to keep the population low in the building.
“We are functioning very well in my opinion under the circumstances,” Cody said. “Is it perfect? No, but we are doing what we absolutely have to do and then adjusting to what needs to be done that you might not consider an emergency.
“I would say that our court employees and probation department employees ... they have stepped up during this crisis. They are doing their jobs, doing them well and they’re doing what we have to do and more.”
Floyd County has worked to reduce its jail population by expediting plea agreements in cases where they’re warranted, and Clark County has modified its bond schedule to not require the arrest of people charged with lower-level, nonviolent crimes, such as shoplifting, for example. In those cases, the offender is given a summons to come back to court at a later date.
“At this point I think it’s the lesser of two evils,” Clark County Prosecutor Jeremy Mull said. “I think that it is working in that the individuals we deem to be dangerous are being put into jail and the individuals who can be dealt with and punished later we are doing that.”
“So that’s the balance we’re trying to strike is making sure the community doesn’t pay the price for coronavirus being in our jail and then that taking up health resources.”
As of Friday, there were 230 inmates in Floyd County jail and 336 in Clark County, a marked decrease of up to 100 from a month ago. Clark County confirmed its first positive case Tuesday, a man with mild symptoms who had not entered the general jail population and was being isolated. As of Tuesday, Floyd County had no inmates test positive.
While each court is doing what it can to move the cases forward, there’s no denying that there will be a backlog in jury trials when things open up — a date which is yet to be known.
The Indiana Supreme Court has as of now restricted operations until May 4, but Carmichael wonders if jurors will be ready to immediately be part of the trial process, especially if social distancing orders are still in place when things open up.
“My courtroom isn’t large enough, my jury room isn’t large enough to keep people six feet apart, especially when we’e selecting jurors and we have 40 or 50 that show up for jury selection,” Carmichael said, adding that she hopes to see the order extended, based on heath guidelines.
“We don’t have a courtroom big enough to keep them six feet apart. If social distancing is still supposed to be in place, we’re going to have some difficulty.”
Judge Adams, who splits the major felony docket with Carmichael, said he anticipates a backlog with trials that will affect civil cases — if all the trial scheduled for March, April and May are pushed to later in the summer, those civil cases are going to have to wait.
Floyd County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Chris Lane said while he doesn’t expect a backlog in pretrial hearings, the restrictions are limiting the course of action when a plea agreement can’t be reached — the trial.
“That’s frustrating obviously, we’d like to get resolutions on some of these,” Lane said. “But the vast majority of the cases where we’re able to come to a plea agreement, we can still do. What we’ve lost is the ability to go to a jury trial right now and until this is lifted, that’s going to be our main thing.
“We’re excited and ready for this to be lifted so we can get things moving”