Justice Delayed, Justice Denied
COVID backlogs are clogging America's courts, keeping innocent people in jail, prolonging justice for victims, and even releasing threats to public safety. 
Dan Johnson
January 15, 2022

Mary Ann Boulden was taking an Uber ride home in February 2020, when she was shot — an unintended victim of a triple shooting in Milwaukee’s north side. The shooter had allegedly been attempting to kill his ex-girlfriend, and her boyfriend, Mary’s driver.

Mary’s family has waited over a year for a resolution, but their case keeps getting pushed into the backlog of cases in Milwaukee county. According to Milwaukee County DA John Chisholm, it could take up to 2 years to fully resolve all of the cases in the Milwaukee County court system. 

Milwaukee is not alone. The government response to COVID shut down criminal courts in many jurisdictions for months, massively increasing their caseloads. According to a Reuters poll of over 200 judges and court professionals, the average number of backlogged cases in state and local courts has increased nearly 32% since COVID started.

In Milwaukee and communities across the country, the court system is struggling under a staggering number of criminal cases. COVID-related delays are keeping potentially innocent people locked in jails, prolonging justice for victims, and even releasing threats to public safety.

COVID’s Impact on the Courts

America’s criminal justice system has always lagged behind the ideal of a “speedy trial” for the accused. Even though less than 5% of cases actually go to trial, it typically takes nearly 6 months to resolve a felony case, and almost 3 months to resolve a misdemeanor case. The courts’ response to COVID, however, has made these delays pale in comparison.

When the pandemic started, courts in every state altered their in-person operations. Many suspended criminal trials entirely. COVID backlogs varied by state, but as of February of last year, New York City had a backlog of 49,000 criminal cases. Maine had 22,000. The State of Florida requested additional financial assistance for a record 1.1 million stalled cases. Milwaukee County alone has nearly 5,000 backlogged cases

While many courts have shifted to hybrid and virtual sessions, the near-total shutdown of criminal cases for months, combined with the difficulties of transitioning to virtual spaces, especially for disadvantaged defendants, is keeping the courts from doing anything except fall less behind. 

Justice Delayed, Justice Denied

These delays impact everyone involved in the justice system. 

For the victims, these delays deny them closure on their cases. 

When 84-year old Janie Marshall lost her footing in a Brooklyn hospital, she was pushed by a woman who accused her of failing to social distance. She hit her head on the hospital floor and died shortly after. Marshall’s niece, Eleanor Leonard, just wants the case to be over, but is still awaiting justice over a year later. “I won’t have peace, and I don’t think my aunt has peace in her grave, until this woman is convicted.”

For some victims, the longer their case is delayed, the greater chance they will develop mental and physical health issues, including anxiety, night terrors, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Asked about the impact of the delays, Marvin Clinton, Mary Ann Boulden’s brother, told WTMJ -TV that the case delays are like “prolonging the agony that we have already dealt with.”

But delays in justice don’t just impact crime victims. COVID-related case backlogs can also unfairly punish the convicted. 

“Each additional day of pretrial incarceration, could mean the difference between a job and no job, or absence from the birth of one’s child, or the risk of being physically assaulted or contracting a deadly virus….”

-Federal Judge Corrine Beckwith

Charles Ford was acquitted in March 2020 of stabbing a friend in a dispute over a woman. He was convicted on a lesser misdemeanor, with a 6-month sentence. By the time he was convicted, he had already served 22 months. While serving time in prison, his bills piled up, his credit score dropped, and his fiancée left him. 

In March 2021, in a separate case, the D.C. Circuit Court ruled that being held past 100 days did not violate the right to a speedy trial due to the pandemic’s emergency circumstances. 

In her dissent, D.C. Circuit Judge Corrine Beckwith outlined the consequences of the delays for pretrial detainees:

“Each additional day of pretrial incarceration, could mean the difference between a job and no job, or absence from the birth of one’s child, or the risk of being physically assaulted or contracting a deadly virus….”

To make matters worse, these backlogs can impact people who weren’t even involved in the criminal justice system if the courts get it wrong.

COVID Backlogs Make Communities Less Safe

On November 21st, a man who had allegedly fired at his nephew for using his cell phone, and attempted to run his ex-girlfriend over, took the wheel of a red Ford Escape, and drove it into the Waukesha Christmas Parade. Darrell Brooks drove through police officers, paradegoers, and student marching bands, allegedly swerving to hit the largest amount of victims possible, leaving 6 people dead and 60 injured in his wake. Just 16 days before that parade, Darrell Brooks had been released on $1,000 bail, despite a pretrial determination that he was “very high risk” for committing a new crime.

According to District Attorney (DA) John Chisholm, an overworked Assistant DA with two-dozen felony cases to review set his bail unreasonably low before moving on to another case. This one mistake quickly added 66 new victims to the toll of an overwhelmed justice system. It is unknown when Darrell Brooks will face trial.

Numerous jurisdictions are simply dropping cases because they do not have the manpower or resources to keep up.

Some believe these delays are also contributing to an overall rise in violent crime, which is up 5% from pre-pandemic levels. New Mexico Auditor Brian Colon said “If folks are not being held responsible for crimes they commit, and there are no consequences, you’re going to have an increase in activity.”

As victims fail to get justice and the accused are denied a fair hearing, faith in the justice system starts to fade.

“What that says to communities is that you don’t matter as much,” says Meg Garvin, executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute at Lewis and Clark Law School. “And when you are told by a system, ‘you don’t matter,’ you stop turning to the system.”

Community Solutions to COVID Backlogs

While COVID-driven backlogs impact each court system differently, communities across the country are denying justice to victims and a fair hearing to the accused. While cases have rarely been resolved quickly in the criminal justice system, months of shutdowns have led to near-insurmountable backlogs in communities around the country, leaving all parties waiting for 1, 2, or even 5 years for justice to be served, and putting communities at risk in the process.

For the past 6 months, we’ve been researching community alternatives to the courts. Today, we release the first in a series of articles that help community leaders find community solutions to court backlogs. This first article describes the challenges courts across the country are under post-COVID, and the impacts this has on victims, the accused, and the community. The next three will outline incredible solutions developed by community members that can help community leaders address these backlogs.

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