A 2020 mass incarceration report indicates that out of 631,000 people held in the United States jails every day, 74% are usually not yet convicted. Many people are typically held because they cannot post bail, which averages out to a median of $15,000 for felony cases in state courts. And when you consider how the current pandemic can indefinitely delay those cases, it creates a lot of problems for lawyers and their clients.
Since the pandemic started, the justice system also had to figure out how to operate during tough times. The courtrooms shut down, and delays left many criminal cases in limbo as courts could only offer essential services like bail hearings and arraignments.
Changes in Speedy Trial Requirements
Some jurisdictions decided to lower overcrowding in jails by releasing vulnerable inmates and not arresting nonviolent offenders; however, the decisions still leave many pre-trial detainees. Although the 6th amendment gives defendants the right to a speedy trial, it does not specify a time frame, and many have had to set their parameters to set the length for various cases.
In California, felony cases must be tried within 60 days; failure to do so may lead to dismissal unless the defendant abdicates the requirement; states like Texas have no fixed period. The closure of state courts due to the pandemic has compelled the states to modify their laws. Therefore, without specified deadlines, detainees may sit in jails until the courts reopen.
Some attorneys and judges conveyed doubts about the resumption time of in-person court proceedings. Public defenders understand the need for the suspension of speedy trial but wonder when it will end. As the reopening of states continues, Virginia, Nevada, Kentucky, and others have made plans to return in-person court services; many planned to resume physical jury hearings in June or July. However, systemic limitations and the need for states to undertake careful planning and adhere to public safety measures mean a continued increase of backlogs.
Prisons and jails have become hotbeds for the Covid-19 transmission. For example, in April, out of about 2500 inmates in an Ohio prison, 73% tested positive while an Indiana facility had 92% positive tests out of 137 inmates. Additionally, a legal aid society report indicates that New York City jails had more infections than the rest of the population.
The health concerns have led to lockdown in correctional facilities, which restricts lawyers from seeing their clients. Defence attorneys typically discuss sensitive matters with their clients face-to-face because of phone calls’ susceptibility to monitoring. Due to the restrictions of movement, the situation has made it impossible for them to handle certain portions of their work.
Defence attorneys have turned to work remotely, which has become the new normal for various sectors. Although working from home keeps you safe, it comes with some challenges. Law practice requires confidentiality, so lawyers like Takakjian & Sitkoff, LLP have had to find secure communication methods with clients and colleagues.
Proper communication and collaboration between colleagues, law firm management, and clients streamline the work of a lawyer. With the absence of one-on-one meetings due to the pandemic, lawyers rely on emails and phone calls to communicate with their clients. Technology has been an invaluable resource helping attorneys do their job remotely. Law firms have cloud-based platforms so employees can securely access data and files from home to help prepare for their cases. They can also communicate with their clients through video conferencing.
Remote criminal proceedings
While defence attorneys push for the release of inmates and prosecutors work to lower populations in jails across the country, some districts are keeping cases going remotely. For example, Judge Scott Schlegel of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, oversaw the implementation of digitized records, video conferencing, and shared online scheduling and many more technologies to increase his court’s efficiency.
Although several courts are looking into remote jury trials, many experts have doubts about the efficiency of conducting criminal jury cases through remote technology and the constitutionality of remote proceedings. Jury trials usually involve monitoring jurors, attorneys, and clients for distractions like the internet and texts. The decision made by jurors affects one’s liberty and freedom, so they have to focus and pay attention to the proceedings and endeavor that is difficult to achieve through video conferencing.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) act passed by the Congress in March 2020, allowed the United States judicial conference to expand the Federal judges’ authority to use remote proceedings in more matters. Courts can now use video and telephonic hearings to conduct felony cases sentencing and pleas if the judge determines that delay could impair justice, and in-person proceedings compromise public safety and health.
Effects on Plea Bargains
Several critical cases in the United States are settled through plea bargains. By pleading guilty, a defendant can get a lesser sentence, the number of charges reduced, receive a lighter punishment, or other concessions placed by the prosecutor. The COVID-19 gives prosecutors and defendants a significant incentive to strike a plea bargain.
Plea bargains may help a defendant stay out of jail and allow prosecutors to coherently reduce the backlogs and settle cases. However, defendants should be wary about pleading guilty because a criminal record may affect your chances of getting employed, particularly during the adverse economic conditions brought by the pandemic.
Fees and Fines Payment
A defendant incurs a certain amount of court fees, fines, and restitution to the victim of the crime as part of a sentence. These charges can accumulate quickly and make an already stressful situation worse. The closure of courts does not waiver the fines and fees payments, failure to make the payments without a convincing reason can cause a judge to compel you to appear in court or put out a bench warrant.
The pandemic has forced people to make changes in how they operate daily activities at home and work. Adapting to the uncertain times ensures that we remain productive while also taking care of your health.