As courthouses across Southern California begin to resume jury trials to tackle a backlog of criminal cases, public defenders are pushing state and county health officials to move them up the priority list for coronavirus vaccines.
Since December, public defenders in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Clara and San Luis Obispo counties, among others, have banded together and sent letters to Mark Ghaly, secretary of the state Health and Human Services Agency, pleading to be included on the same priority tier as jail inmates for COVID-19 inoculation.
Thus far, they say, their requests have fallen on deaf ears.
“Jury trials put our lawyers at extraordinary risk. Attorneys are in close contact with jurors and sitting right next to their clients in court. Trials can last anywhere from three days to five or six weeks,” said Riverside County Public Defender Steve Harmon, who wrote a letter to Ghaly on Dec. 3 urging him to prioritize vaccination for vulnerable inmates and his office staff.
Harmon said his office has 1,600 cases ready to go to trial, yet hardly any of his attorneys have been vaccinated against the coronavirus virus that killed veteran Los Angeles County Deputy Public Defender Salvador “Sal” Salgado last May and two Los Angeles County court interpreters in January.
Harmon said that while prosecutors do not have as much one-on-one contact with criminal defendants in jail and the more vulnerable indigent population, they should be prioritized for vaccination as well.
“I think that public defenders and district attorneys should be looked at and treated the same because both go into court and work in the courtrooms, and although we deal directly with inmates, district attorneys are still on the same battlefield, as far as I’m concerned,” Harmon said.
Who’s back, who’s not
Orange County, unlike most counties across the state, conducted a limited number of jury trials in 2020 but did shut down during severe COVID-19 outbreaks. The county resumed criminal jury trials earlier this month. San Bernardino County resumed jury trials this week and Riverside County plans to do the same by March 1. In L.A. County, criminal trials remain suspended until the end of the month, and it is unclear if they will be delayed beyond that, said Deputy Public Defender Christine Rodriguez.
Deputy public defenders maintain they are front-line essential workers who work, almost daily, with those at highest risk for the novel coronavirus, mainly jail inmates, the homeless, patients in drug treatment and others at high risk. And yet there are no plans to vaccinate them as jury trials resume.
“The work we do, we are required to do it,” Riverside County’s Harmon said in a phone interview. “There is a constitutional mandate that people need to be defended, so we have no choice. That’s why I say we are in harm’s way every day, and that it takes dedication, and it takes bravery.”
In San Bernardino County, interim Public Defender Thomas Sone said he worries about his staff’s exposure to the coronavirus.
“From day one until this pandemic is over, potential exposure will always be an issue,” Sone said in an email. “Even after we get our first (vaccination) doses, exposure will still be a concern. Even after the second doses exposure will be a concern.”
But he said his attorneys are nevertheless ready to get back into the courtroom. “If we’re not there for our clients, nobody else will be. We’re ready,” Sone said.
San Bernardino Superior Court has safety protocols in place as jury trials resume, including limiting the number of jurors called in to the courtroom at one time, enforcing social distancing, mandatory wearing of face masks, increased cleaning and sanitation, restricted elevator use, required health screenings, and fewer trials in session at one time.
Hardest hit counties
In a Jan. 15 letter to Ghaly, Jennifer Friedman, president of the California Public Defenders Association and a former deputy public defender in Los Angeles County, cited Los Angeles and Riverside counties as among the hardest hit in the state by COVID-19. Both counties, however, have failed to include public defenders in the 1B Tier 2 category for vaccinations, the same tier that includes jail inmates.
“Public defenders represent the poor, those with physical and mental impairments and individuals who are homeless,” Friedman said in her letter. “Public Defenders visit their clients in homeless shelters, treatment facilities, immigration detention, and other congregate living facilities.”
The state’s two-phase, multitier system prioritizes who will receive COVID-19 vaccinations based on risk level. Health care workers and people living in long-term residential care facilities were the first to be vaccinated, followed by emergency personnel, food and agriculture workers, educators, child care workers, and people 65 and older. The second tier includes those working in the transportation, shelter, and manufacturing sectors, as well as those residing in congregate settings such as jails and prisons.
In a Dec. 21 letter, Rodriguez, on behalf of the Los Angeles County Public Defenders Union, urged the Board of Supervisors and public health director Barbara Ferrer to prioritize deputy public defenders for vaccination and deem them essential workers, citing “alarming” daily reports they were getting from the Sheriff’s Department on the spike in COVID-19 cases at the jails. As of Dec. 21, nearly 25 percent of the county’s jail population was in quarantine, Rodriguez said in her letter.
In San Bernardino County’s four main jails, the biggest spike in COVID-19 cases occurred in December and January, with 503 inmates testing positive on Dec. 1 and 944 on Jan. 31 — an increase of more than 87 percent, a sheriff’s spokesperson said. In contrast, Orange County jail inmates testing positive for COVID-19 dropped dramatically from 1,200 at the end of December to just 12 this week.
OC alone vaccinating public defenders
While public defenders in the Inland Empire and Los Angeles County continue pushing for a higher vaccination priority, Orange County appears to be ahead of the game. Interim Public Defender Martin Schwarz said deputy public defenders who work with jail inmates have been receiving vaccinations for the past few weeks, and that county health officials recognize the importance of inoculating those who come into contact with virus-prone inmates.
Schwarz said vaccination helps reduce viral spread in the county jail because it minimizes both the spread of the virus from inmates to public defenders and from public defenders to inmates.
“When COVID-19 is rampant in a custodial facility the pace of justice slows to a crawl,” Schwarz said. “Aside from wanting to keep my side safe, the flip side is wanting to keep the folks detained in these facilities safe.”
Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the Orange County Health Care Agency, said in an email Tuesday that his agency is vaccinating public defenders and prosecutors who are 65 years and older, as well as those who are interacting with jail inmates or in congregant settings, such as homeless shelters.
Waiting their turn
Elsewhere, public defenders and county prosecutors will have to wait their turn for vaccination, and there is no telling when that will be.
“Unfortunately, the biggest issue we continue to face in our ability to vaccinate is a scarcity of supply and variability in the amount of vaccine we receive from week to week,” said Natalie Jimenez, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. “At this time, vaccination is only open to health care workers, residents and staff at long-term care facilities, and people who are age 65 or older, and this accounts for approximately 2.2 million people here in L.A. County.”
Darrel Ng, a spokesman for the California Department of Public Health, said the state has not released any guidance yet on who will be eligible for vaccination after those ages 65 and older have been inoculated. The No. 1 constraint, he said, is vaccine availability.
“As you can imagine, every state in the country wishes they had more vaccines right now, and it’s constrained by manufacturing,” Ng said. He said the state has 1.1 million vaccines this week, in both first and second doses, to provide to counties across the state, and will have about 1.2 million on hand next week.
But there is a ray of hope. Ng noted that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House adviser, said supply could begin to meet demand by April. But for now, Fauci says the timeline for mass vaccination will likely be prolonged into mid-to-late May or early June.
While vaccination efforts are moving more slowly than most would like, Jimenez said L.A. County has made much progress over the past several weeks and is currently ahead of other large U.S. jurisdictions in its vaccination rates. She said the county hopes to begin inoculating law enforcement and other emergency responders, education and child care workers, as well as food and agriculture workers, with the first doses of the vaccine in the next couple of weeks.
Still no word
Riverside County Deputy Public Defender Paulette Sandler, president of the Riverside County Attorneys Association, said that as of Feb. 11 her office had received no word from the state or county public health about when they would begin the vaccination process.
“We have employees who are higher risk and older, yet we all still continue to work, going to court and the jails where the outbreaks have been very high,” Sandler said in an email. “I receive email inquiries weekly from deputy public defenders about the vaccine and how to get us all placed on a higher tier. I wish I had answers.”
Staff writer Tony Saavedra contributed to this report.