CLEARFIELD — The Clearfield County Court system continues to chug along while taking steps to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
“The court system has held up pretty well,” Court Administrator F. Cortez “Chip” Bell III said.
Since the emergency orders were instituted two weeks ago by the state Supreme Court, Bell said hundreds of cases and hearings have been canceled.
In the courthouse there are two distinct branches of government, the county controlled offices and the court controlled offices.
The court controlled offices include court administration, probation, and domestic relations. These are controlled by the county judges and ultimately the state Supreme Court.
So if the governor issues an order shutting down all offices, this order doesn’t include the court offices, Bell said.
To shut down court offices state wide the order would have to come from the state Supreme Court, Bell said.
And on March 18, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling closing most of the court offices and functions including jury and non-jury trials and suspended the rule allowing defendants the right to a speedy trial. However, hearings for incarcerated inmates are to continue to minimize people being incarcerated longer than necessary, Bell said.
The county is also holding hearings for people arrested on warrants and the police are still arresting people and they are having their bail hearings as well for this reason, Bell said.
But for many of the hearings and proceedings that are still being held, the inmates are not being transported to the courthouse. These proceedings are being done via teleconferencing and video teleconferencing.
However, all these proceedings are closed to the public and if a defendant wants to have testimony by witnesses from the public such as a hearing for an alleged violation of a permanent Protection From Abuse order, these hearings are being delayed until the emergency is over.
Bell said to his knowledge there is only one inmate in the Clearfield County Jail where this is the case.
The state prison system continues to take inmates who have been sentenced to state prison but the county now has to take them to SCI-Retreat in the Poconos, for processing which is a little farther away than SCI-Camp Hill where the county would take inmates before the emergency, Bell said.
But as a result of the state Supreme Court canceling so many hearings and cases, the county court system could face a substantial backlog depending on how long the emergency orders stay in effect.
“Generally we are scheduling four or five months out as it is,” Bell said. “Now we are going to have these extra cases loaded on top of the ones we already have scheduled.”
And the county and the courts have been doing what they can to reduce the number of people incarcerated. When appropriate, they have released those inmates who have health conditions that could make them more susceptible to the COVID-19 virus. The county has also transferred some inmates to Centre County and the judges have done what they can to release those inmates who have been incarcerated on suspended sentences. These are often for failing to pay fines and costs.
Plus the jail has stopped visitors from entering the jail during the emergency.
Bell said all these efforts have been for the health and well being of participants.
“It’s an effort to limit any potential exposure to the virus,” Bell said.