Backlogged court system and delayed trials create social justice inequities during COVID-19
While the number of people in county jails has dropped because of the pandemic, some incarcerated people in North Carolina are staying locked up longer, a study monitoring these populations shows.
Judges have halted some hearings and jury trials to limit the spread of the coronavirus. This has caused a backlog in the court system, even as COVID-19 outbreaks continue to rack jails and prisons. And as Phase I of vaccinations begins, only jail staff and incarcerated people with two or more chronic conditions or over age 65 will receive their shots – after healthcare workers, according to the state’s COVID-19 vaccination plan.
“Please help us make it back to our family,” an inmate in Forsyth County Correctional Detention Facility wrote to advocacy group Prison Outreach Initiative. “They will quarantine us, keep us from contacting family if we test positive.”
The lead researcher of the study, Anna Harvey, a politics professor at New York University, said the longer detentions are consistent with the slowdown of court activities and district attorneys’ work. Harvey’s research team is monitoring jail populations prior to and amid the pandemic.
In January of 2020, a person who had yet to go to trial stayed an average of less than a week in jail, according to a sample of 14 that consistently self-reported their data. In July, the average length of stay had increased to more than month. By the end of 2020, the time period had dropped to just under three weeks, still longer than a year prior.
“You don’t want to give someone a death sentence while they’re awaiting trial … and that’s what some people believe being incarcerated equates to right now,” said Durham District Court Judge Amanda Maris.
There is also a social justice aspect to these backlogs. Some incarcerated people have family or friends to bail them out, but some others awaiting trial cannot afford bonds. This financial inequity forces them to stay in jail, some of them hotbeds of COVID-19, and possibly contract the virus, which in some cases can be fatal or result in long-term health problems.
Following a 30-day suspension of most in-person hearings, trials are expected to resume later in January. But even then, the backlog will continue, especially in pending criminal cases. As of October 2020, there were more than 980,000 criminal cases in the pipeline, an increase of nearly 100,000 from 2019. Felony cases account for 25% of the increase, the second-fastest growing offense category according to a report by the state’s Judicial Branch.
Raleigh’s News & Observer reported in December that new state Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby has expressed concerns about this issue: “We’ve got to be innovative and come up with some ways to address these backlogs because backlogs are an enemy to equal justice for everyone.” Newby was reported saying, “It’s bad for the criminal defendants that are sitting in jail without their trials.”
Meanwhile, many county jails in North Carolina have reported recent spikes in COVID-19 cases. Statewide, 20 correctional facilities are reporting outbreaks, according to the latest data from the state Department of Health and Human Services. And those numbers are likely an undercount. Some jails don’t regularly test everyone who is incarcerated.
Nor is there a statewide protocol for testing, according to DHHS. The decision is often made by the county health department and local medical providers.
Of the nearly 1,500 people incarcerated in the Mecklenburg County Jail, more than 200 — 13% — tested positive, according to the most recent state health department report. Previous testing identified dozens of employees who were asymptomatic, Mecklenburg County Chief Deputy Sheriff Rodney Collins said.
Collins said the greatest vulnerability in controlling the spread of COVID-19 in jails is the movement of people: the newly incarcerated, those who are released, as well as employees.”As much as we’ve tried to limit the movement, there’s still quite a bit of moving parts that go on in the detention center of the size,” Collins said.
Court personnel are worried about their safety, too. Courtrooms are often crowded; in jury boxes, jurors sit close to one another. In early December, Mecklenburg County’s first jury trial since March concluded with a mistrial because of multiple jurors’ potential COVID exposure and delays, the Charlotte Observer reported.
When the pandemic began in North Carolina last March, Cheri Beasley, who was then state Supreme Court Chief Justice, issued a directive postponing most hearings in district and superior courts to protect the safety of those who interact with the judicial system.
That’s when the 12 sampled county jails in North Carolina witnessed the largest drop of prison populations, according to the report by Harvey’s team.
At the time, several county sheriff departments reported a decrease in jail population because of pretrial release policies. Durham District Court Judge Maris said judges “were certainly amenable to reviewing any proposed bond reductions” at the beginning of the pandemic.
“During the pandemic, the courts want to avoid increased pending caseloads whenever possible,” Sharon Gladwell, Communications Director of the state Judicial Branch said in a statement.
Yet the number of people in custody experiencing delays while awaiting trial or transfer is difficult to ascertain because there are a lack of comprehensive data at the state and federal level.
“I think all of us continue to be really sensitive to the fact that if you’re going to allow someone to remain in jail during a pandemic where there’s an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19, that has to be for a legitimate reason grounded in the law,” Maris said.
Harvey’s NYU study showed that the proportion of people re-entering jail after being released during the pandemic has decreased. “We can see that rebooking rates are lower now, which indicates basically lower public safety risk,” Harvey said.
Harvey said their analysis suggests that jurisdictions “could release many more people from jail without significantly increasing that public safety risk.”
This is why Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry’s office implemented a pretrial release policy that recommended people with nonviolent charges be released without posting a bond. Deberry’s office has also been prioritizing prosecuting cases involving violent crimes. She emphasized that the majority of these more serious cases are still resolved without trials.
“So if someone is not a danger to themselves or others, we pretty much work every day to make sure those people do not stay detained,” Deberry said.