Indiana inmates await court as counties delay jury trials

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — The COVID-19 pandemic is placing a hold on jury trials across the state, and this could mean Hoosiers are spending longer time behind bars than they normally would.

All 92 counties and many city/town courts filed Administrative Rule 17 orders to adjust operations during this pandemic. Emergency orders from the Indiana Supreme Court give courts the authority to adjust procedures in response to the pandemic.

Initially, the orders had various effective dates. An order from the Indiana Supreme Court on Friday brings effective dates in unison. It extends emergency operations until May 4 for all 92 counties.

On a county-by-county basis, the Indiana Supreme Court authorized courts to suspend criminal and civil trials.

According to Madison County’s emergency order, the Indiana Supreme Court authorized the tolling of all laws, rules and procedures, setting time limits for speedy trials.

Usually, someone must go to trial within six months of incarceration. If someone is in custody for more than six months without a trial date, that person could be released.

While Madison County’s emergency order is in place, the time through May 4 will not count against those six months. It gives courts more time and inmates do not get credit for this time either.

At the same time, all branches of government are urging communities to review the population of jails. They encourage communities to see which low-risk, nonviolent juveniles and inmates, if any, may be released safely into their communities under pretrial, probation or community corrections supervision.

Judge Angela Sims in Madison County Circuit Court understands these are unprecedented times. She believes courts are trying to be creative in many ways so judges can move cases that are non-jury trial related. Her court is utilizing video conferencing to conduct hearings.

As speedy trial rules change during this time period, she believes dozens if not more than 100 Madison County inmates could be in jail for a longer period of time than normal as they wait for trial.

“Service as a juror requires many given people at one given time during the selection process, and on top of that, it requires anywhere from 12, 13, of upwards of 14 people to be in a fairly small area,” she explained.

It’s one of the reasons her court removed jury trials from the calendar. She said judges continue to be mindful of the amount of delay a defendant would have in coming to trial.

“We are in an emergency situation, and it doesn’t seem to be unreasonable given the circumstances,” said Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings.

The National Legal Aid & Defender Association is raising concerns though about trial delays. It is worried about possible backlogs and the impact on people’s livelihood.

“How can we minimize the damage that are caused by delays in trials?” asked Rosalie Joy, VP of Defender Legal Services Division at NLADA. “You can’t get back to your family. You can’t get back to you job. You might not have a home to go back to.”

Judge Angela Sims said they plan to prioritize cases once the suspensions are over.

“Those that have been in custody will be at the top of the list for those trials once we are back open for business. We will generally look at the age of the cases as well, and the older cases again go to the top of that list,” she said.

Indiana courts are ensuring essential operations continue by accepting filings and holding remote hearings. More than 450,000 documents have been filed statewide since March 9.

In Madison County, Indiana Supreme Court authorizes immediate suspension of all civil proceedings, except protective orders regarding family or domestic violence, stalking or a sex offense, civil commitments, emergency guardianships, emergency Child in Need of Services (CHINS) proceedings and juvenile detention hearings, and other emergencies or matters deemed essential in the courts’ discretion.

In criminal proceedings, bond hearings and arraignments of inmates shall be deemed essential.

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