The release from jail of 150 people who have not been allowed their right to a speedy trial was demanded by public defenders, family members and local advocates.
A protest in the form of a mock trial was held Friday on the steps of the Hall of Justice by the SF Public Defender’s office to highlight the plight of people who languish in jail without knowing when they will face trial.
During the mock trial, “witnesses” including public defenders, family of jailed defendants awaiting trial and a man who spent nearly a year in jail before his trial called on the court to release inmates held past their trial deadline.
Robert Brewer was held in jail for 288 days before being found not guilty of first-degree murder, among other charges last year.
Brewer said that he was in jail between August 2020 and May 2021 before finally going to trial.
It took around 90 minutes for a jury to decide to release him, his attorney and deputy public defender Kathleen Natividad said.
“I was a social butterfly when I first came here, since then it’s hard for me to come out, it’s hard for me to speak, it’s just been like a dark cloud over me,” Brewer said.
Public defenders say the SF Superior Court is violating defendants’ right to a speedy trial by making them wait more than 60 days for trial on felony charges or 30 days for misdemeanors.
“When the courts are not enforcing trial deadlines, our clients are trapped pre-trial in jail, by a system that violates their rights, jeopardizes their health, and separates them from their families and communities,” said San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju.
Many jailed defendants are let out of their cells for just one hour per day, which damages their mental and physical health, public defenders say.
Concerned about the living conditions inside jails, risks of contracting Covid or MPox, jailed defendants’ parents made a plea to the city to release their children.
“I haven’t hugged my daughter in over two long years, because the San Francisco [Superior] Court has repeatedly delayed her trial,” said Myra Borg, whose daughter Sarina Borg is currently in pre-trial detention facing murder and a firearms charge. “Each day she is separated from me and her children, my grandchildren.”
Public defenders are petitioning the court to officially demand that defendants be released, arguing that people are being illegally detained past the speedy trial deadline. They are also filing motions to dismiss other cases on the grounds that jail conditions experienced by defendants are unlawfully cruel.
The Court of Appeals waived speedy trial rights during the pandemic, but this was supposed to be on a temporary basis and SF public defenders argue it should be reversed.
Public defender communications boss Valerie Ibarra said that part of the reason there is a backlog is that five of 11 open courtrooms in the Bryant Street courthouse aren’t being used, slowing down the rate at which cases are processed.
Ibarra said that the court is not holding felony trials at the Civic Center courthouse and has not looked for alternative venues, making the case backlog worse and forcing longer pretrial jailing.
The San Francisco Superior Court said in a statement that they are “committed to fair and prompt handling of all cases and will continue to send criminal cases to trial in a timely manner” but did not give further comment, saying that they cannot discuss pending litigation.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated the SF Public Defender's Office were suing the court, they are actually petitioning the court.
Garrett Leahy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org