As the pandemic forced Philadelphia’s criminal courts to shut down for much of 2020, and some defendants approached a year in jail without a hearing, lawyers began noticing a strange phenomenon. Thousands of cases were all being listed for December status hearings in Room 200 of the Stout Criminal Justice Center.
The problem? There is no such courtroom, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The process of rescheduling those cases is ongoing — court dates are now being scheduled into July, lawyers said. It has become one striking example of the courts’ struggle to adapt, as an escalating backlog has now exceeded 13,000 cases, according to the Defender Association of Philadelphia. Ten months into the pandemic, the rule guaranteeing a speedy trial remains suspended.
Last week, the Defender Association took the unusual step of petitioning the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to intervene. The filing sought release for six people who had been jailed more than 200 days without a preliminary hearing, at which prosecutors must show probable cause that a crime occurred.
“Because nearly all court hearings and trials have either stopped or slowed to a trickle, each petitioner, and hundreds of others like them, have been unable to contest the basis of their confinement,” the Defender Association wrote.
The president judge of Philadelphia’s Municipal Court, Patrick F. Dugan, said in an interview that the courts are navigating a complicated and imperfect process amid unprecedented challenges.
“I have two jobs. One is our mission, which is to do these cases in a fair and expeditious manner for everyone involved,” he said. “But in COVID, the welfare of the people has to be a parallel [concern]. We have to take into consideration the health of our people: the attorneys on all sides, the sheriffs, witnesses, victims, police, anyone involved in our court system.”
Courtrooms where judges once heard more than 50 cases per day are now limited to a few per hour, he said.
And even when the court is ready, other justice system actors may not be.
Last fall, he instituted status calls before preliminary hearings to ensure that all sides would be ready. But of 4,300 hearings scheduled that way, 61% still ended up getting delayed.
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