Amnesty for work program halted by COVID-19

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SAN JOSE — More than 1,600 people who were sentenced to a Santa Clara County sheriff’s weekend work program in the first year of the pandemic, but were unable to fulfill it because it was suspended for safety reasons, have been cleared of their obligations in an act of amnesty by the court.

Superior Court Judge Eric Geffon’s order, signed Thursday, removes a limbo status for hundreds of people who whose work sentences were set to begin during the shutdown period. They were still technically on the hook for their sentences even though they had no chance to show up, and after the program resumed, there was no capacity to clear the backlog amid scores of new incoming sentences.

“This is obviously a unique and extenuating circumstance that through no fault of these defendants, they find themselves in a position where for over a year they were unable to serve the sentence that the court had ordered,” Geffon said.

Work sentences that were set to begin between March 17, 2020 and May 1, 2021, when the sheriff’s program was offline, will be considered fulfilled under Geffon’s order. He noted that the sheriff’s office had used its discretion to credit the weekend work sentences — which entail community improvement duties like park and roadside cleanup — of people who had already started but couldn’t finish their terms.

That still left at least 1,600 people in legal uncertainty, and who risked becoming the subject of bench and arrest warrants for not having fulfilled their sentences. Geffon’s order also bars warrants from being issued for those affected, and withdraws any warrants that had already been created.

Assistant District Attorney David Angel said Thursday’s order — which was worked out between the DA’s office, public defender’s office, independent defense counsel’s office, pretrial services, and county counsel — avoids the “greater injustice of continuing to somewhat rotely apply a punishment and penalty that would no longer serve a public safety purpose.”

Sylvia Perez-McDonald, independent defense counsel director, called the order “an appropriate and necessary action.” Assistant Public Defender Damon Silver added that the amnesty reached Thursday will have a particular impact on disenfranchised people who are more likely to interact with the courts.

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