In New York, persons accused of felonies are brought before a judge who decides whether to impose bail. Then prosecutors must present the evidence before a grand jury within six days and obtain an indictment. If the prosecutor fails in this process, the person can plead with the judge to go free. But Governor Andrew Cuomo suspended the six-day deadline in his March 22, 2020, stay-at-home order. New York court officials deemed grand jury hearings as non-essential while the COVID-19 outbreak is underway.
Appearing before a judge to set bail is relatively easy. It can be done via a video and a TV monitor. But convening a grand jury requires assembling a large number of people. And suspending the six-day deadline has resulted in those unable to make bail sitting in jail for longer periods. Only about one in four people charged with a felony in New York are indicted by a grand jury. Prosecutors often drop the charges within the six-day window if victims or witnesses refuse to testify or if the case appears too weak to lead to a conviction. With the suspension of grand juries, “people who could have their cases resolved, they are now sitting in jail,” said Stan German, executive director of New York County Defender Services.
This is especially devastating to the sick and infirm. Curtis Holly told the judge in Manhattan criminal court that his immune disorder, asthma, and infected gunshot wound put him at risk of death if he were held at the Rikers Island jail complex where a COVID-19 outbreak rages. Holly burst into tears when the judge set his bail at $5,000. Even though the victim didn’t want to press charges, Holly remained in jail eight days later without being indicted.
While New York, Florida, and Iowa have suspended grand juries and are keeping pretrial detainees in jail, California has taken an opposite approach during the coronavirus pandemic. There, judges have been ordered to free those accused of lower-level felonies on $0 bail.
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