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One public defender in Colorado has tested positive for COVID-19 and others have been exposed to the virus, stoking concerns over a potential spread among courthouses, jails and prisons.

“We have staff from many of our offices who are awaiting test results,” said Maureen Cain, director of Legislative Policy and External Communications for the Colorado State Public Defender.

Cain couldn't provide details about the person with COVID-19 or the other attorneys waiting for test results, including their locations, citing privacy concerns.

The person who has the illness tested positive Friday, Cain confirmed. It is the same case the Denver Post reported Tuesday, she said.

The Public Defender’s Office provides legal representation for indigent clients across the state, and many of its attorneys work closely with jailed defendants, either through in-person visits or during court hearings. That proximity raises concerns inmates could have been exposed.

ACLU, advocates call on governor to reduce jail and prison populations

Colorado State Public Defender Megan Ring first informed officials of the positive coronavirus test in a letter last week.

Amid the threat from the new coronavirus, courts across the state have decreased in-person hearings, the Colorado Department of Corrections has halted in-person visits to inmates by the public, and most jails have increased cleaning and disinfecting.

But those steps haven’t gone far enough, observers said.

The Public Defender’s Office joined the ACLU of Colorado and several other groups Tuesday in urging sweeping changes to help stem the virus’ spread. In a joint letter, they asked Gov. Jared Polis and other officials to reduce jail and prison populations, draw down arrests and promote policies that put fewer people into custody.

The governor’s office has offered to meet with the groups in the next day or two to discuss their requests, Cain said.

In the absence of a statewide directive, individual jurisdictions are left to craft their response. 

Courts in Colorado Springs, Cripple Creek to postpone trials, prune dockets

While some counties have responded more urgently, others, including the 4th Judicial District, continue to lag behind, Cain said.

Although El Paso County has followed direction from state judiciary to postpone most trials and reduce in-person hearings, Cain said the El Paso County courts have no unified approach to issuing bonds and the potential release of jailed inmates.

“The chief judge is allowing individual judges to make whatever decisions they want to make. It’s very inconsistent,” Cain said. “The sheriff is making some changes, but they have no ability to test people in jails, and have people who are showing symptoms and are being quarantined.”

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Jacqueline Kirby on Tuesday confirmed that some inmates are under quarantine, but said the jail has no positive COVID-19 cases.

“It’s one of the largest jails in the state with people coming in and out every day. The chances that there is someone infected are pretty high," Cain said.

Inmate advocates say "social distancing" is impossible in jails and prisons, allowing illnesses to spread in an environment notorious for substandard care. As inmates, employees and others cycle in and out of correctional facilities, they could help drive infection rates in the community, the advocates warn.  

On Wednesday, the Sheriff's Office said in a news release that it is modifying its response policies to prioritize in-progress emergencies.

If an incident has ended and there is no pressing threat, deputies will contact callers by phone. Deputies will respond in person if there's an active risk to people or property. People should continue calling 911 during emergencies and calling 719-390-5555 for non-emergency needs, officials said in the release. 

Kirby previously said the sheriff's office is working on ways to slow down the number of people booked into the jail, and discussing the possibility of suspending arrests in low-level, non-violent drug and property crimes. It's unclear if those steps are still being considered.

Police haven’t responded to questions about how their policies may change in light of the threat from COVID-19.

El Paso County District Attorney Dan May said his office will review requests by attorneys to modify bond for at-risk clients on a case-by-case basis. Ultimately, judges make those decisions, but prosecutors decide whether to support or oppose them.

"I’m giving my individual attorneys the power to review that and see if that changes their recommendations to the court or not," May said.

The DA's Office isn't conducting its own review of cases to check for inmates who might be safely released, he said.

No prosecutors in the Colorado Springs office have tested positive for coronavirus thus far, May said. 

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