Executive Summary

In March 2020, following the lead of numerous other government agencies, the vast majority of courts in the United States shuttered their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Every single U.S. state suspended some court proceedings and eventually 36 states suspended proceedings nationwide, with many not opening their doors for over 3 months.

These shutdowns have led to the largest case backlog in the entire history of the courts. As recently as February 2022, King County, Washington had a backlog of over 5,000 cases. In Wisconsin, Milwaukee County Chief Justice Mary Triggiano said “without help, it will take three or more years” to clear her county’s backlog. A Thompson-Reuters survey of court professionals found that the average court’s case backlog increased by 1/3rd.

As a result of these backlogs, victims across the country are being denied justice. Criminal defendants have languished in jail for months, many detained long past their sentences. These delays in justice have even put communities at risk, as one overwhelmed prosecutor’s office showed when a risk management system error allowed Darryl Brooks to massacre paradegoers in Waukesha, WI.

Despite a long history of attempts by numerous organizations, both public and private, to correct these backlogs within the court system, even in pre-COVID times the average time to disposition for civil cases was over a year, 256 days for criminal felony cases, and 193 days for criminal misdemeanors. This leaves little hope that these backlogs will simply be addressed by reforms to the courts.

Instead, judges, policymakers, prosecutors, criminal and civil justice reform advocates, and any citizen interested in speedier, more effective justice, should look to community solutions to help address America’s COVID-driven court backlog crisis.

This report outlines 4 different community solutions to court backlogs, community mediation, restorative conferencing, victim-offender dialogue, and teen court, that can deliver justice faster, less expensively, and in many cases more effectively than the traditional court system.

We also identified 6 case studies, at least one for each solution, of these solutions in action in communities around the country, showing at a granular level how these solutions could work in your community. Each of these community programs processed cases between 3 and 11 times faster than comparable court processes, with programs that focused on civil cases showing a satisfaction rate of over 80%, and programs that focused on criminal cases producing recidivism rates between 3 and 5x lower than state averages.

After reading this report, it is our hope that you discover a solution or combination of solutions that can help your community develop emergency measures to overcome your courts’ COVID-driven backlogs, identify solutions that can help increase the efficiency of case disposition long-term, and reduce future backlogs in your court system.