Many states drastically curtailed the operation of their courts in response to the pandemic, leaving many in jail questioning their right to a speedy trial guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. Some civil trials and preliminary hearings for criminal matters moved online, but actual criminal trials needed to be conducted in person in front of juries. New cases kept pouring in, partly as a result of the surge in violent crime that accompanied the pandemic. There are many possible explanations for the crime increase, but many who work in criminal justice are attributing it to the extended shutdown of so much of the court system, the institution at the heart of public order, The Atlantic reports. The shutdowns undermined the promise that crimes would be promptly punished. By putting the justice system on hold for so long, many jurisdictions weakened the effect of having speedy repercussions to effectively deter people from reoffending. As Reygan Cunningham of the California Partnership for Safe Communities put it, closing courts sent “a message that there are no consequences, and there is no help.”
Many courts still aren’t operating at full capacity, and law-and-order types aren’t the only ones concerned. Defense attorneys and members of the progressive prosecutor movement are worried too. The link between any one instance of violence and courtroom delays can be hard to prove. Sometimes it couldn’t be more obvious. In a New Mexico case, Leon Casiquito was charged with armed robbery and aggravated assault for trying to steal a bottle of tequila with a pocket knife in December 2020. His case was supposed to be heard within six months, but a district judge postponed his case indefinitely after the county fell far behind schedule. Four months later, his cellmate, who had schizophrenia and was charged with aggravated battery, flew into a rage and beat Casiquito to death. Authorities in Wichita, Ks., tried to get on top of the backlog issue after officials suggested that people were committing crimes because they were disinclined to take a plea deal when no trials were taking place. After consulting with the county health director, the city resumed jury trials in July 2020, four months after having suspended them. The goal was to keep the criminal justice system rolling. "It's important for the community to see the courts functioning," said Kevin O'Conner, the presiding criminal court judge in Sedgwick County. Some disagree. Prosecutors should rethink whether it is necessary to bring so many cases in the first place, said Anita Khandelwal, a Seattle public defender. She believes that prosecutors should divert more people accused of nonviolent crimes into alternative, community-based resolution programs.