HAMILTON COUNTY, Ohio — The coronavirus pandemic is delaying hearings for people charged with crimes in Hamilton County, and for some, that means they could be stuck in a jail cell for up to four months before a grand jury or judge sees evidence.
In the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O'Conner issued an order allowing courts to delay proceedings in response to social distancing recommendations and to prevent further spread of the virus. Ohio state law requires that cases go to a grand jury or see a preliminary hearing within 10 days of the charge. O'Conner's order suspended those grand jury hearings through July.
For those who cannot afford to pay bond -- or whose effense is too serious to allow a bond -- the delays could mean weeks waiting for due process behind bars.
"We can't get grand jurors right now," said Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters. He said his office has had to pull in volunteers to help, and Thursday he announced his entire office staff would furlough for two weeks, with about 10% remaining on furlough for up to three additional months. Some pay cuts were issued throughout the office, as well.
"(That's) fine, but we have some really serious cases pending right now, including the murder of a police officer in Springdale," Deters said. Police accused Terry Blankenship in the death of Springdale Police Officer Kaia Grant after they said he slammed his car into her cruiser during a high-speed chase.
Hamilton County Public Defense Attorney John Kennedy says the delay in hearings is violating defendants' constitutional rights and disproportionately hurting lower-income individuals who cannot afford to post bond.
"If you get locked up say 10 miles, 20 miles to the east of here, your case proceeds months quicker than in Hamilton County," Kennedy said. In Butler, Warren and Clermont counties, courts have chosen to hold preliminary hearings remotely. Hamilton County ditched the practice years ago and relies solely on jurors.
"Nobody wants these cases hanging around," Deters said. "The only ones we think they should be holding are violent criminals, and that's all we're doing."