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As The Nation's Courthouses Reopen, They Face Massive Backlogs In Criminal Cases

As criminal courthouses slowly reopen across the country, many have massive case backlogs that could take years to get through. In Chicago, that has prosecutors preparing to drop thousands of what they have designated "low-level" cases because it will be impossible to bring them to trial in time.
As criminal courthouses slowly reopen across the country, many have massive case backlogs that could take years to get through. In Chicago, that has prosecutors preparing to drop thousands of what they have designated "low-level" cases because it will be impossible to bring them to trial in time.

Updated July 14, 2021 at 1:03 PM ET

Criminal courthouses across the United States are confronting massive case backlogs as they begin slowly reopening after long pandemic shutdowns. It has some prosecutors preparing to drop so-called "low-level cases" because they will not be able to handle the expected crush of speedy trial demands.

Prosecutors in Chicago, for example, are preparing to drop a large number of criminal cases when the courts fully reopen later this year.

Thousands of criminal cases have built up in Cook County over the past 15 months, as the county's massive court system has been all-but shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That means thousands of people locked up in jail, on electronic monitoring or out on bond have essentially had their cases on hold. But the waiting caused by the pandemic could mean many people accused of nonviolent crimes will get off scot-free.

"I think we should be prepared for a system that is going to be overwhelmed," Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx said.

Foxx said that will likely mean dropping a large number of lower-level cases in order to prioritize cases involving violent crime.

"We cannot allow for violent cases to fall through the cracks," Foxx said. "And so using that calculus, [we have to make] sure that those cases that could be dealt with outside of the system are in fact purged from the system so we can focus our attention on violence."

Courthouses are likely to see a steep increase in speedy trial requests

The Illinois Supreme Court announced June 30 that courthouses will return to normal in October, and defendants will once again be able to assert their Constitutional right to a speedy trial, a right the Illinois Supreme Court suspended in March 2020 amid COVID-19.

Chicago-based defense attorney Adam Sheppard said he expects to see "a flood of speedy trial demands" across the system.

"It is gonna be overwhelming," Sheppard said.

Foxx said there is no way her prosecutors — or the court system overall — will be able to deal with that coming crush.

"In a scenario where everyone demands [a trial], potentially 30,000-plus cases needing to go to trial within the span of several months, and the reality is our court system, I don't think there's any court system in the world that would be prepared to have that many trials just logistically, staff wise, all of it, it would overwhelm the system," Foxx said.

That pattern could be repeated in jurisdictions across the country, as courthouses try to return to normal with thousands of people who have been waiting months or more for their day in court.

Dropping cases sends the message that "you don't matter"

Meg Garvin, executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute at Lewis and Clark Law School, said she's heard of other jurisdictions that are also considering dropping a large number of cases because of backlogs. She's concerned about the message that could send to victims.

"What that says to communities is that you don't matter as much," Garvin said. "And when you are told by a system, 'you don't matter,' you stop turning to the system."

Garvin said crime victims have a legal and moral right to be consulted before prosecutors drop a case or agree to a plea deal. And she hopes prosecutors across the country won't deem any crimes involving human victims "low level."

Insha Rahman, vice president of the Vera Institute for Justice in New York City, said there are a vast number of cases pending in courthouses throughout the country that do not have actual victims. She said the COVID-19 crisis provides an "opportunity" to throw out those types of cases.

"Let's wipe the decks clean and only focus our resources and deal with the backlog for the most serious cases, because those are the ones where we can do better, we can do justice," Rahman said.

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