Nearly a quarter of defendants in San Francisco County's jail population awaiting trial are being held past their original trial deadlines, with some waiting years for their case to be heard, the Guardian reports. In the early months of the pandemic, 68 people were jailed past their trial deadlines. In January that number had risen to nearly 250. Hundreds more are awaiting trial out of custody. California law guarantees a speedy trial, which is defined as 30 to 60 days after arraignment depending on the nature of the crime. Court backlogs have rendered such deadlines functionally impossible, which in some cases has led to long waits in jail and serious deterioration of inmates' mental and physical health. In response, Mano Raju, the San Francisco Public Defender, filed a lawsuit last year alleging that the superior court is violating people’s constitutional right to a speedy trial. Former inmate Robert Brewer said, “You’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but you’re treated as if you’ve already been sentenced." Brewer was found not guilty of homicide in May 2021 after being held more than five months past his original trial date. He says that the experience of incarceration continues to affect his mental health.
Many who have been incarcerated over the last two years have held to deal with COVID-19 prevention measures akin to high-security. Some inmates claimed that they were allowed out of their cells for less than an hour a day during outbreaks of the virus. Brewer claimed that he was allowed to leave his cell to shower only once every two to three days after his cellmate contracted COVID-19. The Sheriff's department confirmed that during some periods inmates were held in their cells for 23 hours a day due to “social distancing protocols, quarantine protocols, isolation protocols, disciplinary action, administrative segregation, and staffing shortages." In February, Raju filed a petition in a California appeals court asking that courts in San Francisco be forced to take steps to prioritize criminal trials. “How long it will take to address the backlog depends on what the court is willing to do,” he said. “There is a lack of urgency.” Additionally, the public defender’s office and the San Francisco district attorney have called on the court to make more rooms available for criminal trials in the courthouse.