Balancing COVID-19 Case Backlog and Speedy Trial Concerns

Balancing COVID-19 Case Backlog and Speedy Trial Concerns

As the nation tries to find a way forward in this COVID-19 era, there is an area of concern for advocates and legal scholars: the state of speedy trial guarantees. The guarantees of a speedy trial have roots both in the U.S. Constitution and in state statutes.

According to the National Center for State Legislatures, 40 states and Washington D.C. have statutory speedy trial guarantees. And 32 of those states have express time frames that ensure people charged with a crime go to trial within a certain timeframe. In Virginia, defendants held in jail must face trial within five months. For those who are not in jail, the time period is seven months. Other states have shorter time periods. Maryland, for instance, requires a trial within 180 days of the first appearance.

People often take the right to a speedy trial for granted, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed that.

Speedy trial requirements normally present difficulties in few cases. But, with COVID-19, courts across the nation have suspended statutory speedy trial requirements. State Supreme Courts, like Virginia, continue to suspend the statutory requirements for speedy trial. Virginia has had the suspension of speedy trial requirements in place since March 16, 2020.

Alaska ended the blanket suspension in July but allowed for discretionary tolling of speedy trial when necessary for an orderly return to normal.  These suspensions make sense given that COVID-19 is still a threat. Indeed, most courts are not back to full capacity. And many courts are also dealing with extensive backlogs in their cases after being unable to operate during the beginning of the pandemic.

The problem with suspending speedy trial requirements lies in the fact that countless criminal cases are now taking far longer to move through the court system than they would usually. Defendants could be sitting in jail awaiting trial, in certain cases, for longer than the likely sentence would be. Additionally, the delay can cause witnesses to become unavailable or to forget key aspects of a case. There is also a greater likelihood that evidence will be lost the longer a case sits.

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Courts must now balance the right to a speedy trial against safety concerns and a backlog of cases.

Courts must now decide how to balance the need to ensure that the system does not buckle under the backlog the need to not delay criminal cases any longer than necessary.

Both Alaska and Delaware plans to move forward have promising and seem to balance these concerns effectively. Delaware has also reinstated speedy trial requirements and has ordered that pandemic-delayed criminal cases have priority. This provides courts with clear guidance on how to proceed.

Alaska, as noted above, has reinstated speedy trial requirements but permits the courts to exercise discretion in enforcing speedy trial. This ensures that cases go to trial within the speedy-trial requirements. It also ensures that when there are genuine administrative concerns about scheduling a trial within the window, the court has some leeway to suspend the requirements so the court can still function.

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Ideally, courts would reinstate speedy-trial rights immediately. But the justice system is far from ideal.

In an ideal world, speedy trial requirements would be able to be automatically reinstated with no caveats. But this is the real world. Courts are dealing with over a years’ worth of cases. And it is simply not feasible to meet the statutory requirements in every case. Judges and prosecutors should do their best to bring cases within the statutory requirements. But there still needs to be some discretion to suspend speedy trial even once it is reinstated.

Courts struggling with how to move forward should look to both Alaska and Delaware. They can reinstate speedy trial requirements, recommend prioritizing pandemic-delayed criminal cases and provide for discretionary speedy trial suspension when necessary due to scheduling and administrative difficulties. These steps in combination with courts trying to get back to normal functioning should help alleviate the backlog of cases while ensuring that defendant’s constitutional and statutory rights are preserved.

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