As an early hotspot for the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington State was one of the first places forced to reckon with the realities of the virus, including the toll it could take on the justice system if no action was taken. With that in mind, Thurston County Pretrial Services was one of the many agencies in the state to work swiftly to avoid a disastrous situation.
Shifting their focus on improving their monitoring, supervision, and communication with clients, Marianne Clear, the director of Thurston County Pretrial Service, said many of their changes have resulted in a more accessible and equitable system.
Major changes included things like an increase in telecommuting for both clients and staff, Clear said, which has helped level the playing field in a largely rural and spread out county.
“Transportation can be a barrier for some of our clients,” Clear said. “So this has been an opportunity to reduce those barriers, because they are not being required to come in person.”
Clear said the only time their clients are required to come into their supervision office is if their case specifically calls for in-person monitoring, such as with felony substance-related charges that pose a risk to community safety.
Otherwise, Clear said defendants under their supervision are permitted to call in for their check-ins with her team, as well as use Zoom for in-custody and Criminal District Court hearings. As of August, the Supreme Court is still transitioning to remote hearings, Clear said.
Additionally, Clear said the county has reduced the number of required pretrial hearings per case, which she said has also reduced obstacles for some defendants.
Another major improvement Clear has seen in response to COVID-19 has been the increased communication between the court system and their clients, including the an increased use of text message alerts to remind them of their appearance dates and other pretrial requirements.
“Some clients have really benefited from being in better contact and have expressed appreciation for those text reminders,” Clear said. “Often our clients tend to see supervision not necessarily as punitive, but a way to stay in contact and figure out where they need to be and when, which I think is one area that we have really stepped up.”
She also noted that by utilizing remote hearings, some of their clients are getting more savvy and learning more about technology. It has also reduced financial strain by removing the need for childcare or taking time off of work to go to court.
“Those are some things I’m hopeful we can keep in place, because I really think it does address some barriers that we know to be present, but have previously been unable to remove,” Clear said.
Washington State suffered one of the first major U.S. outbreaks of COVID-19, which poses a particular threat inside jails and prisons. Alongside statewide efforts by the Department of Corrections to reduce the incarcerated population, Clear said Thurston County did the same on a local level.
“In the span of a few weeks in March, we were able to reduce the jail population by about 30 percent,” Clear said. “It started mostly with a focus on already sentenced individuals who were deemed eligible for release, but then it also did reach that pretrial population.”
Clear said a major focus has been reducing the number of people brought into custody in the first place, in part by increasing the use of cite and release practices. However, she said that shift has resulted in a larger ratio of the pretrial to convicted populations inside the jails.
“While the jail populations are lower and there are fewer people in jail overall, what’s been happening over the past few months, is that those that are coming in are coming in on more serious charges,” Clear said. “We’ve been focusing on releasing people from jail, but now as people are coming in, we have not been able to do trials and resolve cases. So when folks are coming in and getting into custody they aren’t getting out the way they were.”
In March, Thurston County courts suspended all jury trials and infraction proceedings and limited other in-person court appearances, including all hearings of defendants who were not currently in custody. Some hearings resumed in June, with an emphasis on remote access.
While some other jurisdictions scrambled to make reforms when the pandemic hit, Clear said Thurston County Pretrial Services has been looking at making systemic changes for a while.
Last year, Thurston was one of the five counties chosen to partner with Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research to improve their pretrial justice systems. Since then, Clear said they have been utilizing that collaboration to lay the foundations of reform, which she said put them in a better place to adapt to the pandemic.
“We would have eventually made some of these changes. We’ve been working on them,” Clear said, describing the criminal justice system as a large ship that is difficult to steer. “But I do believe we would not have made them already.”
However, in the face of COVID-19, Clear said they were pushed from conversation to action faster than she could have imagined.
“We had to make such quick decisions, it almost felt like reacting rather than responding, even though we’d already been talking about making some of these moves,” Clear said. “Because making changes to the criminal justice system is such heavy lifting, it usually takes a very long time. And so having the pandemic happen, which no one has predicted or anticipated, pushed us to move quickly.”
Clear said she’s “incredibly grateful,” that all the stakeholders of their system have good working relationships, as well as for the support offered by APPR during these unprecedented times.
Anecdotally, Clear said she’s been happy with the changes her agency and others within Thurston County’s criminal justice system have made.
“Change for the most part is often challenging, especially when you look at a system that is as deeply ingrained as the criminal justice system,” Clear said. “But I am pleased for the most part because it provides an opportunity to do things differently, and I think the criminal justice system could benefit from change.”
Still, Clear said it’s important to wait to see the numbers down the line in order to make real, data-informed decisions about the actual impacts – good or bad – their changes have had.
“Particularly because of our APPR partnership, we’re in a really great position to look at those numbers, in order to make the data-driven decisions on what’s happened with the reforms that we want to keep, or maybe what pieces we need to alter so that we can do better,” she said.
Thurston County was one of the 197 jurisdictions to participate in the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies’ survey earlier this year to measure how pretrial agencies around the country have reacted and adapted to the pandemic. The results were encouraging to many on the ground, because they showed that an overwhelming number of jurisdictions made sweeping reforms similar to those Clear discussed.
“It’s exciting to me to see that it’s not just our jurisdiction making these changes,” Clear said.
Seeing agencies across the country “taking note and shifting their practices,” is an opportunity to open up the conversation of pretrial reform on a national scale, Clear said.
“It’s so important to get the word out there for people, because it inspires hope. And I think that as long as we’re talking about it, and getting the word out, it can help propose the ideas and show other people who aren’t doing these things that it is possible,” she said.
One thing that stood out in particular to Clear was how widespread efforts have been to become less reliant on jails, a controversial topic among parties who believe jails increase public safety and deter crime.
“It’s commonly known that jails are not only not always rehabilitative, but they are also incredibly expensive in terms of actual costs to communities, but to individual families,” Clear said. “And, [incarceration] actually increases the risk of someone being in jail and coming back into the system.”
While the pandemic has had undeniably tragic outcomes that are increasing every day, Clear said it has also brought along opportunities to show on a large scale what reform can actually look like.
Looking forward to a post-COVID world, Clear said she hopes they are able to implement permanent reforms that are based on data from this moment in time, as well as numbers and research from before the pandemic.
“I would like to see us following the best practices,” she said. “If nothing else, this has been an opportunity for our defendants to show they can be successful with fewer numbers of hearings, maintaining good contact, and fewer screenings. At the same time, we’re having less people coming into our jail, so we can really focus on our supervision, which I think will emphasize the importance of that type of work as well.”