How Covid-19 Has Affected Criminal Justice In California

Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on our daily lives, with more than 212,000 deaths attributable to the virus coming from the United States alone. Unprecedented and sweeping changes have been made in just about all industries and sectors including the criminal justice system, where California courts have been shut down for months and have become backlogged with cases. Prison inmates have been released early or without cash bail. Hearings are taking place remotely or not at all. If you have been arrested and charged with a crime, you might be wondering how the pandemic affects you. Should you do anything differently? Let’s take a look at what has happened to the criminal justice system in California since the pandemic struck, and how this might affect your case..

Key Moments In California

From as early as March, California voiced serious concerns about its jails and prisons becoming a source for the coronavirus to spread especially given the inability for protective measures such as social distancing. This led the criminal justice system to act in unprecedented fashion after working closely with local, county, state and federal health department regarding the crisis, which came to a head in March when President Trump shut down travel from China. Every aspect of the court system was reviewed by health officials to assess what the courts could do to mitigate the effects of the pandemic as it was unfolding before everyone’s eyes.

It was made clear in March 2020 by California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye that the local courts had the power to suspend or otherwise adjust their court operations to account for local health authority guidelines. In some cases, this meant modifying timelines for cases or even considering new practices such as remote hearings. Of course, the challenge with the court would become to balance the interests of public safety with the interests of those inmates and other defendants with regard to their liberties and due process rights.

Emergency Orders Modify, Halt Court Operations

By March 16th, in response to the pandemic, the Supreme Court of California amended procedures relating to oral arguments. Also, guidance was issued to California trial courts who sought emergency orders to suspend or adjust court operations. The law permitted local courts to request permission to do things like change filing deadlines, hold sessions in different locations, prolong the start date for criminal trials, and issue extended temporary restraining orders.

By March 18th, electronic filings of documents including briefs became mandatory. On March 20th, Supreme Court proceedings with deadlines between March 20th and April 20th had been extended in response to coronavirus. By this time, emergency orders were issued by the Chief Justice in almost all of the 58 counties in California. This came at a time that the executive order issued by Governor Gavin Newsome deemed courts essential services which must provide services to the public.

Courts Told To Lower Bail Amounts For Low-Level Felony, Misdemeanor Offenses

To protect constitutional and due process rights, Courts were urged by the Chief Justice in March 2020 to:

  • lower bail amounts to $0.00 for low-level felony and misdemeanor offenses
  • take into account the existing health conditions of defendants and the expected conditions in confinement as it relates to conditions of custody for both juvenile and adult defendants
  • provide for early release of those detainees with under 60 days in custody regardless of whether community-based treatment or supervision was necessary
  • prioritize the issuance of restraining orders and of preliminary hearings and arraignments for those defendants in custody
  • prioritize juvenile dependency detention hearings
  • allow for video (e.g. Zoom) and telephone appearances by defendants and counsel or non-critical or routine criminal matters

All Jury Trials Suspended

By March 23rd, courts were ordered by the Chief Justice to suspend all jury trials for at least 60 days. Then, on March 30th, temporary emergency measures were implemented according to an order by the Chief Justice. These measures included extending:

  • the 10 court day period for holding a preliminary hearing and the defendant’s right of release to 30 days
  • the time in which a defendant charged with a felony must be taken before a judicial officer to 7 days
  • the time for holding a criminal trial by more than 30 days
  • the time to bring an action to trial by more than 30 days


On April 6th, new rules were adopted by the Judicial Council to, inter alia, lower the jail population. These rules reduced bail statewide to $0.00 for low-level felony offenses and misdemeanor offenses. At the time, Justice Cantil-Sakauye conveyed,“ We are at this point truly with no guidance in history, law or precedent.”

Because of ending cash bail, the populations of California’s jail populations dropped. Just prior to June 2020, Orange County’s jail population was reduced by nearly half, while Sacramento County and Los Angeles County reported nearly a one-third drop. Other counties such as Stanislaus, San Mateo and San Diego also saw significant reductions.

By April 29th, the deadline to hold criminal trials was extended by 90 days by the Chief Justice amid the ongoing pandemic.

California outstanding warrant attorneyJail Population Reduced By 20,000 In California

By June 8, 2020, the Judicial Council considered ending certain temporary emergency relief measures. Namely, this included a plan to end the Covid-19 emergency bail schedule. By this point, the jail population was reduced by 20,000 people to help flatten the curve. Apparently, crime rates continued to remain at historic lows.

Judicial Council Approves End Of Statewide Emergency Bail Schedule

In light of the phased re-opening of the state, the Judicial Council voted 17-2 to end the emergency bail schedule effective June 20th. Additionally, the order extending time for arraignment was rescinded by the Chief Justice, which meant that defendants would be required to be arraigned within 48 hours.

By June 26th, most California trial courts began the process of holding jury trials again with the imposition of unique measures for safety such as the use of screenings, facemasks and social distancing in courtrooms, jury assembly areas and elsewhere.

Notably, on July 10th, 31 of the 58 counties, constituting 80 percent of California’s population, opted to keep an emergency bail schedule in place to slow the spread of the pandemic in jails as well as the surrounding communities. Apparently, some counties adopted Covid-19 emergency bail schedules including the imposition of cash bail for those who were previously released on $0.00 bail and then rearrested. Some counties also eliminated some of the offenses which qualified for $0.00 bail.

Audio, Video Appearances Expanded In California Courts During Ongoing State Of Emergency

By August 5th, many California courts modernized their approach to criminal justice, including allowing court proceedings to be streamed online and for remote technology to be put to use. For example, on August 10th, audio and video appearances were expanded to all 250 criminal courtrooms in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County.

At this point, courts can actually require court operations and hearings to be conducted through the use of remote technology as long as the defendant provides consent. California is still under a state of emergency. So far, the state has more than 834,000 positive Covid-19 cases and more than 16,000 Covid-19 deaths.

How Delayed Cases Could Lead To Renewed Plea Negotiations

When you are charged with a crime, the prosecutor will likely offer you a deal that you are free to accept or reject to avert a trial. In negotiating this plea bargain, there’s a lot to take into consideration. First of all, your criminal defense attorney should review your likelihood of being found guilty at trial and the impact of a jail sentence on your life. This calls for a careful review of the evidence against you. Your attorney should also take your needs, goals or expectations into consideration. It is always your right as the client to accept or reject the plea deal; however, insisting on a trial could prove to be a bad decision.

Your situation might be exacerbated because of the pandemic’s unprecedented effect on the justice system. Namely, if you are sitting in a jail cell awaiting trial, you have to worry about the risk of contracting the virus. The State of California has taken some steps to protect the health of inmates, but is this enough? Officials are particularly concerned about those who face elevated risks from contracting the virus, such as the elderly populations.

Although some counties have taken steps to reduce bonds as a way of reducing jail populations, others have rescinded those emergency protections or have modified them so that some offenses don’t qualify for $0.00 bail. And for those who await a trial, the question of when that trial occurs is far from clear. So, If you are imprisoned and awaiting trial, the ongoing pandemic could cause you a longer period of pre-trial incarceration. This makes it more important to consider renewed plea negotiations.

Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer In California If You Are In Trouble

With so much on the line in your case, it is essential that you consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney who can, among other things: evaluate your case; analyze your charges and defenses; ensure that your rights are protected especially during these unprecedented times; and help you determine the best way forward. The attorneys at My Rights Law have extensive experience protecting the rights of the accused. We are on your side. If you have been criminally charged in California, call (888) 702-8882 or contact us online for a free consultation with one of our knowledgeable criminal defense attorneys.

(LA Court Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)