COVID-era criminals go free: Prosecutors dismiss cases as backlog mounts
The pandemic slowed the criminal justice system to a crawl in much of the U.S., and now an increase in violent crime is straining the system even further.
Why it matters: COVID-19 has caused backlogs in criminal cases across the U.S. to swell, forcing district attorneys to focus on the most violent offenses — and decline, delay or deal down a slew of other cases.
- "For the prosecution, the older a case gets, the tougher it gets to prove in a lot of cases," said Billy West, president of the National District Attorneys Association and the D.A. for Cumberland County, N.C.
Details: Prosecutors in Chicago are pleading out or dismissing cases to help shrink the courts' backlog. And in Oakland, Calif., they've had to dismiss old cases amid an uptick in violent crime, Alameda County District Attorney, Nancy O'Malley announced in June.
- The number of criminal cases pending before courts in Harris County, Texas, home to Houston, rests at more than 94,000. The Houston Chronicle reports it would take judges a year or more to clear its dockets.
By the numbers: The number of violent crimes in the U.S. rose by 5.6% in 2020, according to FBI figures released Monday — the first increase in years.
- The estimated number of aggravated assaults rose 12.1%, while murder and nonnegligent manslaughter offenses increased 29.4% -- the highest single-year spike in U.S. murders in at least six decades.
What they're saying: "Without a substantial change, we are facing the very real possibility that it could take more than three years before some violent crimes make their way to trial and even longer for homicide cases," Spencer Merriweather, the D.A. in Mecklenburg County, N.C., said earlier this year.
- Merriweather stopped prosecuting low-level drug offenses in February 2021 to focus on homicides and violent crime, Axios Charlotte's Michael Graff reports. As of this summer, Merriweather's team of about 85 prosecutors had 110 murder cases awaiting trial, following two of the city's deadliest years on record.
- Beyond those cases, the office is also prioritizing defendants with a history of violent crimes, especially gun crimes, because many homicides are carried out by repeat offenders.
Courts in many parts of the country were closed for part of last year, and virtual hearings didn't make up for that lost time.
- The virus can still slow things down now — the trial of former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes was delayed last month because a juror might have been exposed to COVID.
Between the lines: New Mexico Auditor Brian Colón, who is running for state attorney general in 2022, tells Axios that some experts believe the backlog actually contributed to recent jumps in crime in urban areas like Albuquerque.
- "If folks are not being held responsible for crimes they commit, and there are no consequences, you're going to have an increase in activity."
Yes, but: Martín Antonio Sabelli, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and an attorney in San Francisco, said he knows of no attorney who's cleared a client just because the pandemic postponed their case.
- He said stoking fears about overloaded court systems and out-of-control crime is a scare tactic.
- "It's some sort of political attempt to make people fearful that violent crime is on the rise because of anti-police sentiment, because of judges acting on technicalities to dismiss cases due to the pandemic," he said.
What to watch: State legislatures and local county governments will consider a variety of proposals, from decriminalization to hiring more prosecutors, to shrink backlogs.