Hundreds Have Been In San Diego County Jails For More Than A Year
Thursday, April 1, 2021
Photo by Claire Trageser
County jails are supposed to be places where people arrested and charged with crimes are held for a brief time while they make bail or await their day in court. But in San Diego County, at least 380 people have spent more than a year in county jails, according to an analysis of jail records.
These so-called “pretrial detainees” are waiting for their first court date, or are wading through delayed court calendars, multiple hearings, or attorneys asking for more time. But unlike the majority of defendants, they are doing that waiting not from home, but in jail.
The San Diego County records, which are part of a statewide analysis by the nonprofit news outlet CalMatters, show that in addition to the 380 inmates who’ve been in jail for a year as of January, three have been in for more than five years. Another 20 have been in jail for more than three years, the data show.
Defense attorneys and advocates for inmates say this is a miscarraige of justice. People who can’t pay bail or are denied bail are supposed to be in jail for short times before and during their trials, and then either released or sent to prison. (Some people serve shorter misdemeanor sentences in jail, not prison, but those people are not included in the CalMatters data).
“These pretrial detentions can be absolutely devastating,” said Michael Semanchik, the managing attorney for the California Innocence Project, which represents incarcerated people on a pro-bono basis. “In prison, they have a yard, educational opportunities, jobs, they’re set up for longer term living, and jails are not set up for that. So when you’re thinking about keeping people in pretrial detention for longer periods of time, where they’re just sitting around, it’s really detrimental.”
Lt. Amber Baggs, a spokeswoman for the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, declined an interview request but answered questions by email. She said San Diego jails “are equipped to house inmates for any length of time.”
As examples, Baggs pointed to a Sheriff’s Department report that says jails are equipped with telephones in common areas where inmates can make outgoing calls. They also have access to email, can receive packages and have visitors, but only through a glass wall with telephones. There are also classes, job training and mediation programs available, though much of that has been curtailed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pandemic has played a role
In California, defendants have the right to a trial that begins within 60 days for a felony, 30 days for a misdemeanor. But according to the CalMatters report, there are several reasons why people might wait jail for much longer. Sometimes it’s because defense attorneys waive their client’s right to a speedy trial to get extra time to prepare. But stacked court schedules also lead to delays.
All of this has been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has allowed judges to use emergency orders to waive speedy trial rights and delay trial dates.
That’s true of Bernard Graham, who’s been in the George Bailey Detention Facility for almost three years. Police allege that in 2018, Graham threw a closed pocket knife at a teenage girl and then ran toward a police officer with a machete over his head. Graham was shot by police, but survived, and has been in jail ever since on $360,000 bail.
Graham’s mother, Gina Burns, disputes the police’s account of what happened and said she can’t afford the bail. She said her son has mental health problems and worries that he is not getting the help he needs. After Graham was arrested, Burns was concerned about the treatment he received for the gunshot wound. When she visited him, she saw his stomach was protruding immensely, she said.
“I was scared that he was going to die in George Bailey due to medical neglect,” she said. “Because you keep telling them that he needs help, this and that, and they just ignore it, they ignore it.”
Burns said the COVID-19 pandemic is delaying his trial and making it harder for him to work with a public defender. She’s now hired a private attorney to take his case.
Rachel Solov, a chief deputy district attorney for San Diego County, said many of the people in custody pending trial are being held for serious offenses, including murder, rape, and child molestation. That means that trials take a long time, because there are continuances so attorneys have more time to prepare, possibly changes in defense attorneys, complex mental health issues that require medical assessments and mental competency hearings. She said it also means that many of those people are held without bail because they're considered a public safety risk.
She said COVID-19 has only added to the delays.
“We had a period of time where the courts shut down completely, but since the end of last year we started started trials, but it’s slow going, because we don’t have as many courtrooms,” Solov said. “We call them COVID courtrooms and they had to be retrofitted, so it was safe to do those trials in the courtrooms.”
Emily Cox, a spokesman for San Diego Superior Court, declined interview requests, but answered questions over email. She said there have been several orders during the pandemic that allowed for extensions to most court proceedings.
The court has allowed many hearings to be done virtually, but not jury trials, she said.
“It is the constitutional right of someone accused of a crime to be able to personally appear for their trial and defendants are generally unwilling to waive that right,” she said. “In addition, there are many logistical impediments to holding jury trials remotely.”
For example, there is no way to ensure juries are fully paying attention to proceedings, and could be subject to outside influences.
Last fall, the courts were beginning to hold criminal jury trials again in the Central Courthouse, with plans to resume jury trials in branch courts in January. But all of that was paused after a surge in COVID-19 cases prompted another lockdown in December, she said.
The Central Courthouse resumed jury trials on Feb. 8, and the branch courts started in the following weeks.
“The capacity of the jury assembly rooms are currently in the 15-25% capacity range, which depending on the case, may mean that only one jury can be seated in a given day,” Cox said. “Additionally, only a limited number of courtrooms are outfitted with Plexiglas protective barriers and/or can be sufficiently socially distanced for jurors, so the number of trials that can be conducted each week are limited.”
The records show inmates who’ve been in the longest tend to be those charged with the most serious crimes For example, most of the people in San Diego jails for more than three years have been charged with murder or sex acts with a minor, and many are in the midst of mental competency hearings that can take time to complete.
Crime victims suffer too
The long waits for trials also have devastating impacts on victims and their families.
Mark Everitt has been in San Diego jail the longest, almost six years, and is charged with murdering 55-year-old Julie Ann Marie Ulm in Santee in 2015. Ulm’s longtime friend, Sheila Kelly Paradise, said she has been to every hearing in the trial over the past six years.
“I’m disabled, I’m 76 years old, but myself and my caretaker, we go onto the Who’s in Jail website, follow when the next trial date is, and go down to El Cajon,” she said. “It’s just maddening. He did it, they caught him, and he did it, and what a waste of California’s money. It just keeps going on and on and on.”
Because many people who remain in jail are unable to make bail, the population skews toward lower income, said Laila Aziz, the co-organizer of the criminal justice reform advocacy organization Pillars of the Community. Almost half of the pretrial detainees who’ve been in jail for a year or longer are Hispanic, 23% are Black, and 27% are White, according to the CalMatters data.
“What we’re seeing on the ground is that the District Attorney is stacking charges, leading to higher bails,” she said. “These people are not a risk. And then if they reach a plea bargain, they’re just let out, so clearly they weren’t actually a public safety risk.”
A California Supreme Court ruling last week could impact that in the long term, saying detainees can’t be held just because they can’t make bail, but those people would still have to be released by judges’ rulings, and judges can still hold people considered public safety risks.
Cox, the Superior Court official, with the court also pointed out that court orders allowed for the accelerated release of sentenced county jail inmates, and that for those specifically awaiting trial, an Emergency Bail Schedule was enacted to set bail to zero in many cases.
Aziz said that the more time someone spends in jail, the more likely they are to take a plea bargain, simply because they don’t want to be in the jail anymore.
“There are fights in jail, it’s a mental health institution, there are people dealing with that, people are mentally ill themselves, and there’s the constant stress of not knowing what’s going on around them,” she said. “Jail is a scary place.”
KPBS investigative assistant Katy Stegall contributed to this story.
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