Unusual Times

By Mary Robnett. 

The ground has shifted under our feet dramatically – and I don’t mean just since the COVID-19 crisis started. Even in the last two weeks, since I was asked to write about how the pandemic is affecting our office, court operations have changed significantly. To call it unprecedented in my lifetime undersells it.

Our immediate focus has been on striking the right balance – to protect the public, keep attorneys and staff safe, and minimize contact while still handling essential business in open courtrooms. With a spirit of cooperation and practicality, the courts, prosecutors, defense, and law enforcement are working together well in these trying times.

The state Supreme Court’s emergency orders greatly reduced, by delaying, trials and most out-of-custody matters. Pierce County criminal court operations are down to the essentials.

  • Proceedings have been reduced to mostly in-custody arraignments, pleas, and sentencings
  • Law enforcement is being selective about bookings, focusing on violent offenses and domestic violence. Many cases will be issued by summons at a later date rather than arraigned immediately
  • More of our work is being done by phone and email, including negotiations between prosecutors and defense attorneys. An emergency court order eliminated the need for most jail visits by defense attorneys, who are advising their clients by phone
  • The three CD courts have been consolidated into two, with arraignments taking place via a video link to the jail so corrections staff do not have to transfer inmates

A head start
Most prosecutor’s office employees are now working from home. Thankfully, we were more prepared for this than most workplaces, thanks to Chief of Staff Lana Weinmann and our two hard-working IT staffers.

Lana pioneered work-from-home policies at the state Attorney General’s Office several years ago when she headed up the Criminal Justice Division there. She saw great benefit in enabling staff to work remotely, and she put the necessary policies, infrastructure, and technology in place to make that happen. The Criminal Division pilot was so successful that most other AGO units followed Lana’s lead and began allowing and equipping their employees to work remotely.

Lana brought that experience with her to our office, and she started implementing similar work-from-home abilities here a little over a year ago. As coronavirus spread, our ability to work remotely shifted from a “nice-to-have” to a “need-to-have.” The tech capabilities and policies required were already largely in place before this crisis.

While most attorneys and legal assistants are working from home, we do have skeleton staff in the office to cover the CD courts, process criminal charging, and handle emergency matters. Some of our attorneys working from home are negotiating, prepping cases for trial, and working on appeals.

The slowdown on our criminal side has been a blessing in disguise for public records work. It has allowed some of our legal assistants to shift their attention to processing records requests, a relentless responsibility for government agencies.

Looking forward
This global pandemic has required flexibility and adaptability from every player in the criminal justice system. I’m proud of the way employees in our office have stepped up to accomplish the people’s business under new circumstances.

We have been deferring much of our criminal work to future dates, and I expect we will all be “digging out” from increased workloads for many months in the future. These unusual times are challenging, but also present us with an opportunity to look at the way our office, defense attorneys, and the courts do business and consider improvements and efficiencies. Perhaps we will emerge from this time reconsidering many aspects of our conventional practices.

I know that more adaptability will be required ahead. We all look forward to a return to “normal,” but we know that it will be a “new normal.”