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COVID outbreak at Pa. jail leads to return to virtual court for inmates

County commissioners are also considering a vaccine mandate for corrections employees

By Jo Ciavaglia
Bucks County Courier Times

DOYLESTOWN, Pa. — Bucks County courts are returning to virtual technology for proceedings involving incarcerated defendants as a result of the worst COVID-19 outbreak in eight months among inmates at the county jail.

Bucks County President Judge Wallace Bateman Jr. on Friday issued an order suspending restrictions on the use of advanced communication technology, such as video conferencing, for all criminal proceedings — excluding trials — in any matter where a defendant is in custody.

The order goes into effect Monday through Oct. 1, and includes criminal proceedings before magisterial district courts,

Judges and judicial officers overseeing non-criminal matters including child dependency court and family court cases where a participant is incarcerated will have the discretion to conduct the proceedings in-person or using video technology, under the order.

Absent “extraordinary circumstances, judges and judicial officers are required to be present in the courthouse, judicial center or other court facility whenever a proceeding using video conferencing is held, under the order.

The new rules do not apply to criminal defendants who are free on bail. All trials at the Doylestown Justice Center will continue to be conducted in-person as they have been since June.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has given county president judges authority to impose or keep restrictions in place and time-related orders they deem are needed to protect the public and court staff until the threat of the ongoing pandemic ends.

Bateman’s order comes as the Bucks County jail is experiencing a surge in positive COVID-cases among inmates and county commissioners are considering a vaccine mandate for corrections employees.

After seeing new COVID-19 cases among inmates fall from a high of 63 cases in January to a low of four cases in June, the numbers rebounded in the last days of July when 45 inmates tested positive.

As of Wednesday, the number of positive inmates was at 47. Most were female inmates who tested positive but were asymptomatic, according to Corrections Department Director David Kratz.

The number of active cases among inmates dropped to 19 as of Friday, Kratz said.

Throughout the pandemic, Bucks County jail has only tested inmates for COVID-19 when they show illness symptoms, generating criticism from community activists.

COVID-19 vaccines have been available to Bucks County inmates since April 29, and inmates are asked if they want the vaccine upon admission to the jail. They can also request one at any time while incarcerated, county officials said.

The CDC reports that the highly contagious delta variant is now the dominant strain circulating in the U.S., worsening outbreaks in under vaccinated populations, such as county jails, an environment that makes social distancing extremely difficult for inmates and staff.

New positive cases among Bucks County corrections staff have remained fairly steady and in the single digits since February. Last month four employees in the department tested positive for COVID-19, according to county data.

Falls Township criminal defense attorney Ron Elgart said he was not surprised to see video conferencing return to the courts.

He was recently at the Justice Center in Doylestown and he estimated of the 120 people in the courtroom only three wore face masks, including him.

“It’s necessary,” he said. “There is a huge number of people being irresponsible. This is what the result is.”

But Vincent Montoya is concerned the return to video-only proceedings for incarcerated defendants puts them at a disadvantage.

“There’s a human aspect to a trial or hearing that’s lost in the virtual setting,” said Montoya, a member of the community action group Lower Bucks 4 Change. “Research shows that judges are much harsher when proceedings take place online.”

Neighboring Montgomery County has also seen a recent surge in COVID outbreaks among inmates, though not as dramatically as Bucks County. Vaccines have been available to inmates there since mid-May.

In the first 11 days of August, 18 of the 169 inmate COVID-19 tests administered came back positive, the highest number since May, county spokeswoman Kelly Cofrancisco said. In July only three of 579 tests were positive, the lowest number since January.

The first corrections employee since May also tested positive for COVID-19 this month, Cofrancisco added.

(c)2021 Bucks County Courier Times, Levittown, Pa.