The coronavirus pandemic has upended the criminal justice system at both the state and federal levels, creating serious consequences that could last well into the future. Law enforcement officials, courts, lawyers and prosecutors have all had to adapt to continue working within the confines of stay-at-home orders enacted to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
For one, the outbreak could delay defendants’ right to a fair and speedy trial and prevent detainees from getting justice. American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section Chair Kim Parker recently warned that the crisis could lead to a substantial backlog of cases and overwhelm courts nationwide.
Federal courts around the United States have delayed trials and shut their doors, suspending in-person proceedings until further notice. New York, which has the country’s highest COVID-19 death rate, has halted new criminal jury trials while ordering courts to finish pending trials. New York City has transitioned court proceedings to video or teleconferencing to limit exposure to the virus.
Prosecutors are likely to face significant backlogs of trial-ready cases. The coronavirus-related delays may lead to defendants facing pressure to take plea agreements rather than going through the trial process to prove they are not guilty of committing a crime. In such scenarios, it becomes even more important to retain an experienced defense attorney to protect one’s rights.
Another issue that has come to the forefront during the ongoing coronavirus crisis is overcrowding in jails and prisons, which may not be prepared to protect vulnerable inmates. There has been mounting pressure to release nonviolent offenders to curb the transmission of the virus within local correctional facilities. New York has already released more than 1,500 inmates who were approaching their release date or fell into the high-risk category due to age or underlying health conditions.
The current crisis has undoubtedly presented a host of challenges and highlighted problems that need to be addressed. It remains to be seen how far-reaching the impact is on the criminal justice system.