ctnewsjunkie file photo
Hartford Superior Court (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

Judicial Branch officials have postponed all but priority cases in the state’s courthouses for the next two weeks to prevent the spread of the potentially deadly COVID-19 virus. Most criminal and civil trials will be postponed for 30 days.

But the unlikely pairing of the union representing judicial marshals and the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut contend that more needs to be done to protect defendants, court employees, and the public.

“We’re telling our members to be diligent in wearing gloves and washing hands,” said Joe Gaetano, President of the IBPO Local 731, which represents the state’s judicial marshals.

The union has asked Judicial Branch officials to consider cleaning judicial transport vehicles used to take inmates to court or to bring newly incarcerated defendants to prisons. The union is also concerned about the proper cleaning of restraint equipment, Gaetano said.

Concerns by the union and ACLU-CT arose this week as Gov. Ned Lamont declared a state of emergency to deal with the new strain of coronavirus.

The ACLU-CT is calling for fewer defendants to be incarcerated and more inmates to be released to prevent the spread of the disease.

“Given the CDC’s warnings about avoiding confined spaces and the threat COVID-19 poses to elderly people and those with serious chronic medical conditions, we urge state officials to exercise their existing powers to reduce incarceration as much as possible during this pandemic,” said David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut. “Confining people in close quarters increases the risk of infection, but thousands of Connecticut residents are needlessly incarcerated right now, including those who are accused of a crime and unable to afford bail, and those who are elderly and infirm.”

Judicial Branch officials announced Thursday that all criminal and civil jury trials are being postponed for 30 days with the exception of those already in progress or proceedings granted through a speedy trial motion.

The courts will remain open only to hear high-priority criminal arraignments, custody and domestic violence cases including juvenile detention hearings, restraining order hearings and other proceedings regarding family and civil protection orders, according to Judge Patrick Carroll, chief court administrator.

“…[T]hese measures are being taken to reduce the number of people entering our courthouses in an effort to mitigate the potential for spreading of the virus,” Carroll said.

But McGuire and Gaetano worry that curtailed activities may not be enough to protect defendants, employees and the public.

“In the interest of public health, we are calling on state officials to reduce confinement in state prisons and jails by limiting arrests to serious offenses; releasing people who are being held pre-trial based on inability to afford bail; instituting furloughs, compassionate release, and expedited parole for incarcerated people who are at high risk of serious illness from COVID-19 and pose no public safety threat; and taking steps to avoid backlogs in court dockets,” McGuire said. “We will be closely monitoring the state’s response to COVID-19 to ensure it protects the health and well-being of people who are incarcerated and workers in those facilities.”

The state Department of Correction also issued guidelines Thursday suspending visits to the prisons and encouraging inmates to follow CDC instructions for hand washing and limiting contact. [LINK TO OTHER STORY]

Gaetano said the marshals cannot wash their hands until they get to the next courthouse as they are transporting inmates. “Nobody really knows how this thing is spreading,” Gaetano said. “It’s an unknown for everyone.”

Gaetano called cleaning the transport vehicles on a daily basis “almost impossible.”

“There’s probably about 50 vehicles on the road across the day and they would need to be cleaned by a third-party contractor.”

At 680 marshals, he said the state is already short about 200 marshals. “If you have 100 people out, it would cripple the courts,” Gaetano said. “All it takes is one person, whether they are a clerk, a probation officer, a judge, prosecutors, the public defender’s office and it can spread everywhere. With our job, how are you going to telecommute?” he asked rhetorically.