Long delays were a problem even before COVID-19, but the pandemic has turned the backlog into a crisis. Many factors have contributed to the problem: overloaded defense attorneys seeking more time to juggle cases, prosecutors whose harsh sentencing recommendations require extra hearings, and judges’ overcrowded calendars.
With state emergency orders now in place due to COVID, judges have the authority to waive speedy trial requirements and delay trials. Some courtrooms have been shuttered entirely.
In the 21 counties where demographic data was available (out of a total of 58), the investigation shows most defendants held in pretrial detention are Black and Latino. In San Francisco, the population is 5% Black, but Black prisoners constitute half of those jailed for longer than a year awaiting trial or sentencing.
Prior to the pandemic, California closed about three-fourths of felony cases within the state Judicial Council’s recommended 12-month timeframe. Many courts do not report data consistently, so the delays now may be much more severe.
The state’s largest jail population is in Los Angeles County. There, 1,350 people have been locked up over a year awaiting trial. 180 of them have waited longer than three years.
“It is shocking people would be waiting this long,” said Lenore Anderson, president of the Alliance for Safety and Justice. “Jails in essence were built as short-term facilities.”
Many jails in fact have no outdoor space, exercise facilities, or educational programs, the way prisons do. Most jails also don’t have adequate medical services to treat COVID outbreaks.
San Francisco has long been unable to resolve criminal cases in a timely fashion. It’s rate of completion for disposition of criminal cases in less than a year is almost half California’s average—43% compared to the statewide rate of 79%.
When Chesa Boudin took over as district attorney in early 2020, he said the DA’s office had 5,000 open cases. One in five were over two years old. Boudin made tackling that backlog his priority.
“This is something I inherited and was really determined to fix. And I still am. But now we’re in a worse position than we were when I took office, because of the pandemic,” Boudin said.
Reform advocates blame California’s draconian sentencing, including enhancements and the three strikes law. They also say that prosecutors overcharge defendants to pressure them into plea deals. As a result, defendants and their defense attorneys seek delays.
One public defender said when the “enhancement is so great... you must do everything because if they lose, they do get sent to prison for life.”
With numerous motions and hearings, evidentiary reviews, and investigation of witnesses, pretrial jail stays can drag out. Many of the longest waits investigated involved mental health proceedings like competency hearings.
Cases with multiple defendants can also often take years, according to prosecutors. Juggling the schedules of multiple defense attorneys alone can add months of delays to a case.
In one Central Valley case, a couple had their throats slashed in a botched robbery in 2009. The defendant charged with using the weapon was booked in July of 2009, according to Fresno County jail records. The case has multiple defendants though, and is one of the longest-running the state has prosecuted, held up for years by legal questions over accomplices’ culpability for the deaths. A relative of one of the victims estimates he’s been to court 50-60 times.
Funding and resource shortfalls are also partly to blame for the backlog, according to the state’s Judicial Council. “There’s too many cases, too few courtrooms, too few judges, too few staff, insufficient numbers of jurors,” said LaDoris Cordell, a retired state Superior Court Judge.
According to the Council, eighteen of the state’s courts need a total of 139 more judges. During the pandemic, the Council instituted emergency measures to assist with the backlog. Remote proceedings were allowed, as were annual caps that had limited the hours retired judges could work to assist with cases.
A lack of judges isn’t always the problem. Judges have some control over the pace of a case, but don’t always exercise it. They can refuse continuances and push the parties to reach agreements. Former Superior Court Judge J. Richard Couzens says: “I’ve seen some courts that never saw a continuance they didn’t like.” The state needs to give judges discretion while also ensuring access to justice, he said.
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login