Courts are facing overwhelming case backlogs because of the COVID-19 pandemic and it could take years for the legal system to dig out. Tens of thousands of cases ranging from minor thefts to to murder are stuck in limbo, a situation that has left some defendants waiting in jail and strained prosecutors’ and defense attorneys’ ability to do their jobs, the Wall Street Journal reports. Places like New York, Chicago and San Francisco handle large volumes of cases and have seen rates of some violent crimes soar. They have also faced stringent public health measures that limited court operations. Many courts had to shut down in-person proceedings for weeks or months at a time, most recently when the Omicron variant swept through the U.S. Even when courthouses are open, they host fewer trials under social distancing requirements.
San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju has asked an appeals court to address the backlog. As of mid-January there were 250 San Francisco defendants waiting in jail beyond their legally guaranteed deadlines for a speedy trial. “Those rights don’t mean anything if you don’t have a court where we can actually exercise those constitutional protections,” he said. Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez said staffing shortages have proved a huge barrier to clearing his 16,000 pending cases, with burned-out attorneys being lured to the private sector by law firms who are able to pay their lawyers more. Prosecutors are concerned about a lack of accountability for people who have committed crimes. The delays mean that people who need court-ordered drug or mental health treatment aren’t getting it. “Not having accountability, even for low-level nonviolent crimes, I don’t think is a good thing for society,” said Erie County District Attorney John Flynn, president-elect of the National District Attorneys Association. Nationally, the number of state criminal jury trials dropped by nearly 60 percent in 2020 compared with a year earlier, according to the National Center for State Courts. Roughly 1.3 million more cases came into the system in 2020 than were resolved. Experts say the right to a speedy trial has never been suspended on such a widespread basis for such an extended period.