Amidst Pandemic Emergency, PA District Attorneys Keep Going

April 16, 2020

While many Pennsylvanians are appropriately staying at home under the current emergency declaration, district attorneys are actively working while still practicing measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. A prosecutor’s work does not stop because of a global pandemic. Rather, DAs and their staffs are adjusting to this unprecedented situation to ensure that crimes are investigated, rights are protected, and justice is served. After all, when things start opening up again, we all want and need to come back to safe communities.

Today, from where I sit in my remote office, I hear from prosecutors every day who are working hard to perform essential functions in court and respond to emergencies. Whether they are working remotely or going into the office with a skeleton crew, there are still essential bail and bench warrant hearings, preliminary hearings and juvenile review and placement matters. For some, the caseload has slowed as hearings and trials are postponed and certain crimes have temporarily decreased — probably due to fewer people being out on the streets. But reality dictates that law enforcement is active and prosecutors must continue to coordinate the investigations of non-COVID related crimes, while addressing a “new normal” set of crimes that demand attention because of the pandemic.

COVID did not wipe out challenges that loom large in homes in every community: namely, domestic violence and drug abuse. We want to remind victims, or those with knowledge of an ongoing case of domestic violence, that resources are still available. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-7233 and police are still responding. Please call if you need assistance. One phone call to the hotline or to police could help save a life.

Addiction and mental health are particularly pressing as so many are cooped up, under-stimulated, and hidden from the public eye. For those suffering from addiction or who have knowledge of a loved one suffering from addiction, there are online resources at www.pro-a.org and over the phone.

COVID presents new challenges. As a result, prosecutors are engaged in remote coordination with their police departments, as well as with local business at times to review business closures and complaints (even from home). PA’s prosecutors are also leading the way to keep public services intact, so that when the stay-at-home order is lifted and it is safe to go out again, our communities are still safe.

Some businesses, such as Bucks County’s Supreme Safety Inc, have collaborated with their local law enforcement to donate masks to our first responders and medical emergency workers. In Montgomery County, a toy maker retrofitted his supply chain to produce hand sanitizer for our frontline workers. All of these efforts help not just healthcare workers but the police, firemen and EMTs who are still out protecting all of us.

These supplies were provided to local first responders who are now able to better serve their communities and stay healthy themselves. Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub, celebrated the work of these enterprises: “hard times have a way of bringing out the best in our communities.” There are stories about local communities and law enforcement collaborating to ensure that this pandemic is stopped with minimal impact on the wellbeing of our communities. If you have your own story to share, we would love to hear it at pdaa@pdaa.org.

At the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA), it is our job to organize and provide resources across the Commonwealth. In the last several weeks we have been called upon to coordinate with District Attorneys Commonwealth-wide on a number of issues in response to the pandemic’s ripple effect.  We have shared training opportunities, collaborated on new policies and guidance to keeping the criminal justice system moving and advocated for the appropriate and responsible balance between public health issues and public safety.

This was particularly true when PDAA was called upon by the PA Supreme Court to respond to a distracting ACLU lawsuit that sought to automatically release broad categories of prisoners from county jails statewide. Such a proposition during a national crisis is senseless and dangerous, and we were glad to have the support of our members to fight it off. As we noted in response to this ACLU suit, DAs across the Commonwealth are working to responsibly reduce county jail populations where possible and where it is not a threat to public safety.

The essential functions of our judicial system are continuing operate to serve our communities and keep you safe – prosecutors are an essential component of this system. Society cannot stop, and we are always committed to protecting our communities and seeking justice for victims of crime. Stay safe out there and know that your local DAs are among those working for you – now and always.

Lindsay Vaughan is executive director for the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. She can be reached at lvaughan@pdaa.org.