SOMERSET – Most of Somerset County's criminal court proceedings – except for trials – will be handled by video conference to limit the number of people entering the courthouse in the coming weeks, President Judge D. Gregory Geary said.
Concerned about the sudden rise in COVID-19 cases among state and county prisoners – as well as rising numbers countywide – Geary has issued a "judicial emergency" that suspends a segment of the rule of criminal procedure giving defendants the right to be physically present for a list of court proceedings.
That includes parole hearings, preliminary hearings and sentencings. Inmates would continue being able to appear for those proceedings – but through video, Geary said. The courthouse, jail, magistrates' offices and state prisons already have the web-based conferencing technology necessary to allow that to happen, he said.
Somerset County has added nearly 1,100 new cases of COVID-19 this month – seven cases ending in deaths, state figures show. The two state prisons operating within the county's borders have more than 500 combined active inmate cases.
"The intent is to minimize the number of people in the courtroom right now," Geary said. "If we're bringing defendants from the jail or the state prison system, we're increasing the risk of bringing the virus into the courthouse."
Somerset County Public Defender Tiffany Stanley said she understands Geary's rationale – and credited the judge for adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic's risks while still taking the defendants and the public into consideration.
She said Somerset County Jail officials have adapted to the times, too, making it easier for her office to communicate with inmates they represent, whenever needed, during the pandemic, "so they aren't missing out on anything and their rights as defendants are realized."
Stanley said: "We're all adapting. Just like everyone else right now."
Geary said he's continuing to monitor the increase in COVID-19 cases across the area and will continue to make adjustments within the court system, as necessary.