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The Pandemic Puts Criminal Courts Behind Schedule As Violent Crime Spikes


American criminal courts are way behind. The pandemic caused jury trials to pause court proceedings, which created a backlog. And the delta variant hasn't helped. Some courts predict they will need years to catch up. Here's NPR's Martin Kaste.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Adam Cornell is the prosecuting attorney for Snohomish County, Wash. The courthouse is in downtown Everett.

ADAM CORNELL: What in pre-COVID times would have been a pretty busy place - and there's really nobody in the lobby right now.

KASTE: The benches that are usually occupied by lawyers whispering to their clients or jurors on a break are now empty. And at the doors, the guys running the X-ray machine look bored. But this peacefulness is deceptive.

CORNELL: There has been an increase in violent crime referrals to my office by local law enforcement. But there's no place for those cases to go because of the bottleneck with regard to not being able to get jury trials out efficiently.

KASTE: And 18 months in, the question now is, are these stalled courts making crime worse?


BILL DE BLASIO: We need a fully functioning court system

KASTE: In New York earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio went after the courts there for being slow to get back up to speed.


DE BLASIO: What I have been saying now for months is the absence of a fully functioning court system was hindering our ability to get accountability and consequences.

KASTE: At the same press conference, the NYPD's chief of department Rodney Harrison drew a straight line between a functioning criminal justice system and crime deterrence, especially when dealing with New York's recent surge in shootings.


RODNEY HARRISON: You know, there's a rippling effect that occurs when somebody is held accountable for carrying an illegal firearm. And I think there is a need if they choose to go that direction.

KASTE: Criminologists say that there are really two different phenomena at work here. First, there's what they call incapacitation. Basically, that's just the courts stopping crime by removing people from society, either sending them to prison or to jail to await trial. And there has been less of that during COVID, as jails shrank their populations. Deterrence, though - that's something else.

GARY KLECK: Deterrence is entirely a function of perception. It's whatever prospective offenders think.

KASTE: Gary Kleck of Florida State University has written extensively about this.

KLECK: If what the criminal justice system does doesn't shift people's - perspective offenders' perceptions of risk, then no, it wouldn't result in increases in crime, even if the reality was that the court system is grinding to a halt.

KASTE: And Kleck says past research has shown that potential criminals are generally not dissuaded by what the courts do to other people. Still, crime trends have been weird during COVID. Some kinds of crime are down, while others, such as auto theft and homicide, have spiked. Berkeley public policy professor Steven Raphael has analyzed the numbers for the California Policy Lab, and he says homicide especially has surged mostly among narrow demographic groups.

STEVEN RAPHAEL: It appears to be overwhelmingly, disproportionally impacting young African American and Latino men. And so you're seeing increases among groups that, generally speaking, had higher homicide rates to begin with.

KASTE: Some police think that young men like that are aware of the slowdown in the courts, that they may have heard of some other guy who was picked up on gun charges last year who still hasn't been to court and that that creates a sense of impunity. But back in Everett, Wash., Kathleen Kyle doesn't buy it.

KATHLEEN KYLE: The under-25-year-old brain isn't deterred. They can't see beyond their nose to have a plan in which to deter the plan.

KASTE: Kyle is a public defender with 20 years' experience. She says, yes, people may now see more brassiness, as she puts it, among young people breaking the law. But she says that was always there.

KYLE: The idea that, like, because these systems are slowed down, that youthful people engaged in risky behavior - being more open or cavalier or, like, somehow less deterred, I would just say that they weren't looking.

KASTE: She's more inclined to blame the breakdown of crucial relationships during COVID and shortages of services, such as drug treatment. Her worry is about how the court slowdown is affecting defendants, some of whom are stuck waiting in jail.

KYLE: I've heard it described as a horizonless thing. You know, the district court just shut down and said, we're not going to do trials until October 4. There's nothing magical about October 4. Like, I worry we're still going to be in it, and it feels as dark as it has ever felt.

KASTE: Back at the courthouse, the prosecuting attorney, Adam Cornell, has similar things to say about how this limbo affects crime victims, as well as witnesses who may become more reluctant to testify as time drags on. He says it's debatable whether courts deter crime. But timely justice is reason enough to get the system moving again.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERBIE HANCOCK'S "MAIDEN VOYAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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