San Francisco court deadlock update: Trials getting back on track, but there’s still a long way to go

About two weeks ago, I wrote a column about the deepening legal gridlock in the San Francisco court system, where hundreds of defendants are still in jail awaiting trials that are slow to come.

That’s because the city’s Superior Court system lagged due to COVID-19 restrictions, was understaffed, and wasn’t using all available courtrooms. As a result, everyone’s Sixth Amendment right to a speedy and public trial was violated.

This upset our public defender, Mano Raju, who sued the court to get things back on track. Supervisor Hillary Ronen held a hearing on the matter. And The Examiner brought the problem to light, right there on the front page.

Here’s the update: On May 11, the Court of Appeal rejected Raju’s writ, which would have forced the court to open up more space to hold trials. But guess what? According to my sources in the PD office, all 11 courtrooms in the courthouse are open and the pace of trials is picking up.

I assume someone is reading The Examiner. Or listen to Raju and Ronen.

“Over the past two years, the court has continually violated the rights of justice of those involved by continuing their trials past statutory deadlines, leaving presumed innocent people languishing in cages,” Ronen told The Examiner. “With continued pressure from my office and the Public Defender, all 11 courtrooms in the Courthouse are now open for criminal trials. This is the first step towards addressing the huge backlog of criminal trials caused by the practice of the court and I hope that those who have waited so long for their day in court, both defendants and victims, will get justice.

While this is a great development for those who sit in turmoil awaiting trial, there is still a long way to go. San Francisco’s court system has lagged behind other counties in California throughout the pandemic and continues to lag behind. Orange Country, for example, stayed on top of its criminal trials throughout the backlog by suspending civil trials during the early stages of the pandemic, according to the public defender’s office.

Here in San Francisco, many court proceedings have gone digital during the darkest days of COVID, and civil lawsuits have continued as well. But the backlog of criminal trials kept piling up.

As of May 6, there were 441 felony defendants in the system with cases past their last trial date, meaning the wait has exceeded the legal time frame. Among them, 221 remain incarcerated. (That number had risen to about 250 at the start of the year.) There are also 187 misdemeanor defendants whose cases have passed their last day of trial, and 29 of them are incarcerated.

These are not good numbers. They could improve if the Civic Center courtrooms upgraded. They are still underutilized, according to the Public Defender’s Office. The courts say they are doing their best.

“The canons of judicial ethics prohibit the court from commenting on ongoing litigation. The court continues its commitment to justice by processing all cases as quickly as possible in the difficult circumstances presented by the pandemic,” said Ken Garcia, director of communications for the court.

Ronen also expressed concern that the backlog is related to the lack of trial security personnel, which is provided by the sheriff’s department. Some believe the sheriff’s resources are being used to beef up security to stem the upsurge in retail theft in the city. But, with available public funds at stake, there should be enough money to pay for this detail, as well as court staff. To be exact, the state has a statewide budget of $16 million to support the courts, according to the PD. If county courts need additional services, they can request additional funds from Sacramento.

One of the big concerns at play here is the desperate defendants. If you’re in jail and your trial date isn’t anywhere on the site, you’re much more willing to take a plea deal and plead guilty. Everything to escape cheese sandwiches and the horrors of incarceration.

To do the right thing and uphold our Constitution, the San Francisco Super Court system must do everything it can to catch up on delayed trials and give everyone their right to justice. We have taken a step in the right direction. But this is only one step. Let’s try to take a leap?

The Arena, a column by Al Saracevic of The Examiner, explores San Francisco’s playing field, from politics and technology to sports and culture. Send your tips, jokes and quotes to [email protected] Sign up for his weekly newsletter here. And follow him on Twitter @alsaracevic.

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