The Impact of COVID-19 on the Criminal Justice System and tPP
No one can deny that we are in an unprecedented – albeit historic – time for both the U.S. and the world. Every person and entity is trying to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in the best way possible, and everyone is making adjustments to stop the spread of the virus and comply with social distancing guidelines. Due to COVID, a lot of scheduled events have been postponed or canceled; however, there are things that can’t be as easily suspended or canceled – like criminal justice proceedings. Many are concerned that the pandemic has put “the criminal justice system on hold,” evidenced by the early release of many inmates, a decrease in arrests, and postponements of court cases (Corley, 2020). What does this mean for the future of the criminal justice system and tPP?
Since inmates are at a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 due to close proximity and living quarters, states have been rushing to release non-violent detainees. According to Fox News, as of mid-April, approximately 16,622 inmates, primarily those held on non-violent charges and those who were considered to pose little to no threat to society, had been released in the U.S. (Givas, 2020). However, the U.S. is not the only country struggling with this issue. Iranian judiciary officials announced that it has decided to temporarily free more than 85,000 prisoners, and the Polish Justice Ministry has decided to release around 12,000 convicts in order to decrease the spread of the virus (Reynolds, 2020; Suliman et al., 2020).
In addition, several U.S. federal and state courts have suspended/postponed criminal jury trials until further notice. Each state is handling its judicial proceedings differently, with officials scrambling to find a way to balance justice with public safety. In New Jersey, defendants who are awaiting trial will remain in jail, but the state is estimated to release about 1000 inmates who have already been sentenced and are serving time in county jails; in addition, police have been told to hold back arrests for less serious and non-violent offenses. On the other hand, the police department in Philadephia announced that it will make arrests for nonviolent crimes, but once the offender is processed, they will be released with a warrant instructing them to come in at a later date (Corley, 2020).
The current issues with the criminal justice system became apparent to me when I was perusing the ‘Pending Cases’ doc and searching for court documents for a group of defendants identified in the tPP dataset as the ‘Olaya’ group. This case involves seven members of an organized criminal group known as the Castro Enterprise who led a string of armed home invasions in more than five states, targeting primarily families of Indian and Asian ancestry. The members of the Castro Enterprise were indicted in April of 2015 and all face various charges and possible sentences. The leader of the enterprise, Chaka LeChar Castro, is the only defendant to be sentenced so far. As you can see exemplified in the docket for Justin Johnson (Figure 1), the other defendants have faced multiple reschedulings for judgments and sentencing, with the court typically listing a specific date for the reset sentencing. However, in the current moment, as you can see in figure 2, sentencing for Justin Johnson is “adjourned … until further order of the court,” which one can only assume is due to COVID-related setbacks.
The main concern of these postponements and setbacks is defendants’ constitutional right to a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment. If that right is violated, a defendant’s judgment or sentence can be thrown out. Most states have statutory ‘speedy trial’ limits, and the delays resulting from the pandemic have begun to overwhelm state court dockets, successively creating an expanding backlog of cases. Officials are struggling on how to deal with this issue; for example, Kansas state legislators are considering “a bill that would give the chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court emergency powers to extend speedy trial deadlines” (Reynolds, 2020). In addition, many prosecutors are trying to cut their caseloads by offering more plea deals. Though more plea deals mean fewer hearings for the court, people are concerned that this also means increased pressure on defendants to plead guilty instead of going to trial (Reynolds, 2020).
However, the COVID crisis has created an important opportunity for the justice system to improve and change the way it operates. The Federal Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has adapted to the changes by utilizing technology, telephones, and live audio streaming. Though the Court releases recordings of its oral arguments at the end of each week, SCOTUS and the federal judicial system have failed to make the technological and transparency advancements made by other branches and lower federal and state courts. SCOTUS was forced to postpone two months of scheduled oral arguments, appointing half to be dealt with now and half to be pushed to the next term, which begins in October (Wolf, 2020). The last oral argument heard inside the courtroom was on March 4th, but on May 4th, SCOTUS began conducting oral arguments over the phone. For the first time in history, the public is able to listen to SCOTUS arguments through audio live streaming, in turn creating greater transparency in the justice system (Wolf, 2020).
It will be interesting to see how these delays and changes impact tPP and our coding; however, I do have some hypotheses on how the project will be affected. Firstly, I believe we will see our ‘Pending Cases’ doc expand exponentially due to many defendants’ hearings being ‘suspended until further notice of the court.’ I predict that we will see a decrease in the number of arrests for nonviolent sociopolitical offenses, such as vandalism and providing material support, due to courts aiming to decrease the number of cases on their dockets and many states encouraging their law enforcement to not arrest for nonviolent offenses. I expect some of the defendants we have already included to make changes in plea deals; specifically, I believe a number of not-guilty pleas will change to guilty pleas. As a result of this, I predict we will see an overall increase in the number of guilty pleas we code from here on out.
I believe the project will experience a backlog similar to the court systems – the delaying of cases means an expected influx of court decisions when social distancing guidelines begin to lift. We have to assume that the dates for convictions and sentencing in our ‘pending cases calendar’ have been suspended or changed, meaning we will need to make sure that we have the correct dates and also check that the defendants’ case details have not changed. It is very important for the project to stay on top of the cases in the ‘Pending Cases’ doc and ensure we are not overloaded once convictions resume.
- Corley, C. (2020, March 24). In Many Places, The Coronavirus Is Putting The Criminal Justice System On Hold. Retrieved May 6, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2020/03/24/820957265/in-many-places-the-coronavirus-is-putting-the-criminal-justice-system-on-hold
- Givas, N. (2020, April 16). Over 16K US inmates have been released as coronavirus crisis has progressed. Retrieved May 6, 2020, from https://www.foxnews.com/us/here-is-how-many-prisoners-have-been-released-covid-19
- Reynolds, M. (2020, March 19). How the coronavirus is upending the criminal justice system. Retrieved May 6, 2020, from https://www.abajournal.com/web/article/pandemic-upends-criminal-justice-system
- Suliman, A., Eckardt, A., & Joselow, G. (2020, March 26). Coronavirus prompts prisoner releases around the world. Retrieved May 6, 2020, from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/coronavirus-prompts-prisoner-releases-around-world-n1169426
- Wolf, R. (2020, May 4). Supreme Court hears first case by telephone, with audio livestreamed. Retrieved May 6, 2020, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/05/04/supreme-court-hears-first-ever-oral-argument-phone-live-audio/3077073001/