The Coronavirus has temporarily put the criminal justice system on hold across the nation as the country continues to grapple with the on-going situation. With the system on hold, most courts at the state and national level have closed until further notice, while only a very limited few have resorted to working virtually.
Yet while the courts may currently be on hold, this does not put an end to arrests, nor does it terminate the incarceration of those previously arrested. As a result, this pause in the system has compelled many to wonder when cases will resume, and when trials will occur?
The Right to Due Process?
As existing criminal cases across the nation have been postponed indefinitely, a notable number of incarcerated individuals have been impacted as a result. The Pretrial Justice Institute states that more than half a million people are currently awaiting trial in the United States, which is approximately every six out of ten prisoners.
This halt on existing cases has thus called into question a person’s constitutional right of due process, specifically their right to a fair trial by jury that is speedy. These constitutional rights have essentially been suspended for the time, either due to the governor’s orders or jurors not being called to court. This has struck concern and fear in many inmates in regard to how long they will have to remain imprisoned, awaiting trial.
Lawyers’ Work Also Postponed
While those incarcerated are left with their cases pending, many lawyers are also uncertain about the future and ways in which they can help their clients. Attorneys have been left with extremely limited ways in which they can help advance their clients cases, as a majority of states across the nation are not offering virtual hearings, arrangements, or pleas.
Prior to the pandemic, the prosecution would get a set amount of time by which they needed to bring the case to court. If the case wasn’t started before this time was up, then the case was automatically dismissed.
“Such standards are not being enforced currently during the pandemic, causing speedy trial mandates to become a thing of the past,” explained Attorney Mark Sherman of the Connecticut Domestic Violence Information Center.
Impact of Pandemic on Prison Conditions
As lawyers remain helpless to the circumstances caused by the pandemic, some have concerns over the prison conditions that detainees are being faced with. While prisoners are typically housed in confined spaces with other inmates, this environment poses an increased threat to the spread of COVID-19 and thus puts prisoners’ mental and physical health at risk.
Testing for the virus itself has been extremely limited in prisons, with many refusing to test inmates that do not present symptoms of COVID-19. This leaves inmates as potential silent carriers of the virus and thus unknowingly causes it to spread. Additionally, the pandemic has caused prisons to further restrict prisoners’ movement, with many eliminating yard time, library visits, and in-person visits altogether.
Looking Towards the Future
There has been limited information in regards to guidelines for how courts, both national and statewide, will reopen in the coming months. As speculation of when and how reopenings may occur, defendants will be forced to remain behind bars as they wait for their trials to continue.