The Hall of Justice in Riverside County looks a lot like you'd imagine it would during the pandemic. Plexiglass barriers, seats blocked off, the chairs in the jury assembly room all spaced at least 6 feet apart. But these changes are taking a toll on efficiency.
"A trial that would have taken a couple of days pre-COVID is now just taking a week or more," said Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin.
Jury rooms that used to be able to gather several hundred jurors at once are unable to do that due to the pandemic.
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"We just have to take it in small bites, bring a smaller number of folks in, talk to them, move them out, bring the next group in. It slows everything down, so it's a real challenge for the courts." Hestrin said.
Another problem that rises is how do you physically distance 12 jurors in the jury box? Now six jurors sit in the gallery while the other half sit in the juror box separated.
"You're going to have to spread them out in the courtroom and that's not ideal, because the vantage point differs, but it's one of those things you do in a pandemic because you have to keep the system moving," said John Monterosso, assistant presiding judge in Riverside County Superior Court,
Monterosso said in some ways, the system has become more efficient than before. For example. some hearings are now done virtually.
"Previously people would show up to court, sit there for an hour or two hours, have a five-minute hearing and walk away. This way, everyone gets to stay in their offices, they're summoned at the appropriate time when their case is getting called, they spend five minutes with the judge on WebX, case is done, it's over," he described.
Many cases are now being streamed live online so as to not have as many people inside the courtroom. And now courts are setting dates for virtual jury trials for civil cases. Details however are still being worked out.
"We're very resistant to change, humans are resistant to change, and I think it's even more so in the legal industry. By making the effort, we have to make people feel safe, that's important. Because if you lose confidence in the safety of our courthouses, you're not coming, and we need to have people confident in not just the safety but in coming to get justice, because if we shut down, there goes our republic." Monterosso said.
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