St. Helens Municipal Court climbing out of COVID-19 restrictions
During the coronavirus pandemic, the St. Helens Municipal Court has had to make adjustments to both administer justice and ensure the safety of those attending court proceedings.
While it's uncertain to what extent the emerging Delta variant of COVID-19 will bring back restrictions, times have been better and more productive at the municipal court.
"We've had our ups and downs," Judge Amy Lindgren said, noting that during the pandemic, the court "took just a brief period off and had to really regroup and figure out how to accomplish our services of the municipal court virtually."
Lindgren continued, "I think we all felt it was an important public safety function to have municipal court continue despite all the restrictions."
Lindgren said the pandemic was a huge burden on court staff and that staff had to organize and make phone calls to defendants so that matters could be arranged ahead of time.
"They were amazing," Lindgren said of the staff. "The defense attorneys also worked incredibly hard to meet with their clients virtually and get them prepared for virtual court appearances."
While trials were stopped in March 2020, the court was able to open in June of that year with only five people allowed in the courtroom at one time.
Lindgren recalled the first trial, held near the start of this year, which was anything but normal.
"Our first trial that we did have scheduled, we spent a lot of time, myself and court staff, spacing everyone out," Lindgren said, noting that potential jurors were housed in both the courtroom and city council chambers.
"I was pleasantly surprised at how many jurors came and were willing to serve their community on jury duty," she said.
The masking requirement was a challenge for Lindgren.
"What had been challenging for me was communicating with people wearing a mask," Lindgren recalled. "It was interesting how much I realized how much communication happens by your facial expressions. It's hard to understand and connect with people when you're wearing a mask."
Another challenge was taking people into custody. Lindgren noted that the jail wasn't accepting misdemeanor cases, so for a lot of defendants, it was a year before they could turn themselves into jail.
"We were creative on alternative sentences, giving more people community service in lieu of jail, but that was challenging," she said.
Currently, operations at the municipal court are taking on more of sense of normalcy.
"At this point, we are now in full capacity, so we don't have to limit the courtroom to just five people," Lindgren said, adding that operations are improving because more cases can be called.
Lindgren admits that it was strange to start seeing faces in the courtroom.
"It was a weird feeling, coming out on the bench and having a packed courtroom," she said. "You get used to fewer people, kind of your safety net of six feet apart, then to come out and have everyone packed in there. It's an odd feeling, but it does help operations."
Asked if the municipal court was up to full strength entering August, Lindgren said, "I would say we are 99 percent there. We can schedule jury trials with no restrictions. We have full capacity in the courtroom. That 1 percent is we still don't know each day whether the jail will take defendants or not."
As we all wait to see if the COVID-19 Delta variant results in another statewide clampdown, Lindgren is keeping her options open.
"With COVID-19, you can't be confident about anything," Lindgren said. "I am confident in the court's ability to serve the community. I know now that we can go virtual, if we have to — we have good staff and attorneys to help people. I know we can do it."
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