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Case Backlogs A 'Serious Challenge' To Justice System, Prosecutors Say

A sampling of large prosecutors' offices around the U.S. found a 62% increase in the number of pending cases after the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey was commissioned by the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (APA) to understand the phenomenon of case backlogs.

As the pandemic began in 2020, 14 of the largest prosecutors’ offices reported just under 9,000 cases awaiting trial on average. After various court disruptions caused by COVID-19, there was an average increase of 5,565 cases per office.

"Case backlogs present a serious challenge to not just prosecutors’ offices, but the functioning of the

entire criminal legal system," APA said in a report. "We find that caseloads have grown post pandemic and remain

higher than pre-pandemic levels despite the resumption of normal operations and a varied

programmatic response to address backlogs that remains in place in many offices today.


APA said that "morale challenges during the pandemic and lack of funding to hire and retain prosecutors are

the most salient reasons that offices are not able to act to the fullest extent possible to address their

case backlogs."

The association noted that the caseload handled by specific prosecutors is "extremely varied" because of differing prosecution models.

Excessive caseloads for individual prosecutors, a report issued by the association said, "can result in

longer case processing time, a greater risk for decision-making errors, increased plea bargains and

dismissals, career burnout, and employee turnover."

“Our office struggles with the same issues plaguing prosecutor’s offices around the country. My attorneys each have caseloads in excess of 3-times the national standards and I have hundreds of felony cases waiting to be reviewed for prosecution," said Audrey Cromwell, County Attorney in Gallatin County, Mont.

Caseload levels have been influenced by government "funding shocks" in the past two decades. The 2008 financial crisis and its resulting recession reduced state budgets, employee rank and payroll, shrinking the staff available to carry out prosecutors' requests for help.

APA also cited changing legal requirements and new technologies, as well as victims’ rights

laws that require prosecutors to spend more time working with victims.

Some 46 states have enacted "open discovery" laws, up from about a third of the states in 2004. The measures generally increase the requirements for timely evidence collection.

With at least half of law enforcement agencies now using body-worn cameras, prosecutors must spend more time reviewing video evidence, raising the number of hours needed to prepare cases.

APA noted that the rising number of prosecutors' conviction review/integrity units "can potentially strain limited staffing resources."

The group's report concluded that while many prosecutors' office adopted new technologies during the pandemic to maintain their operations, such improvements "did not alleviate the rising caseloads and work

burdens on individual prosecutors."

The average number of cases being handled by individual prosecutors rose from 139 in 2019 to 184 in 2021, then declined slightly to 175 in 2022.

Offices with sudden onsets of case backlogs associated with the pandemic found that many of their attorneys resigned.

Some prosecutors reported increasing the number of plea bargains or reducing charges as a result of pandemic disruptions.

APA said that many pandemic-era programs and changes to address rising backlogs have been retained, such as scheduling/technological efficiencies or diversion/deflection programs to keep some cases out of court.

Staffing remains a challenge. APA said there no clear patterns that offices were more or less likely to adopt to manage their backlogs.

Many offices are struggling with higher caseloads now than in 2019 without a commensurate increase in staffing."

“This survey confirms that caseloads have grown post-pandemic and remain higher than pre-pandemic levels despite the resumption of normal operations and a varied programmatic response to address backlogs in many offices today,” said APA President Dave LaBahn. “The morale challenges during the pandemic and lack of funding to hire and retain prosecutors appear to be the top reasons that offices are not able to adequately address their case backlogs.”

The report was written by Adam Biener, an economist at Lafayette College, and funded by Stand Together Trust.


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