A sampling of large prosecutors' offices around the U.S. found a 62% increase in the number of pending cases after the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey was commissioned by the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (APA) to understand the phenomenon of case backlogs, according to the National Criminal Justice Association.
As the pandemic began in 2020, 14 of the largest
prosecutors’ offices reported just under 9,000 cases awaiting trial on average.
After various court disruptions caused by COVID-19, there was an average
increase of 5,565 cases per office.
"Case backlogs present a serious challenge to
not just prosecutors’ offices, but the functioning of the entire criminal legal
system," APA said in a report. "We find that caseloads have grown
post pandemic and remain higher than pre-pandemic levels despite the resumption
of normal operations and a varied programmatic response to address backlogs
that remains in place in many offices today."
APA said that "morale challenges during the
pandemic and lack of funding to hire and retain prosecutors are
the most salient reasons that offices are not able
to act to the fullest extent possible to address their case backlogs."
The association noted that the caseload handled by
specific prosecutors is "extremely varied" because of differing
Excessive caseloads for individual prosecutors, a
report issued by the association said, "can result in longer case
processing time, a greater risk for decision-making errors, increased plea
bargains and dismissals, career burnout, and employee turnover."
“Our office struggles with the same issues plaguing
prosecutor’s offices around the country. My attorneys each have caseloads in
excess of 3-times the national standards and I have hundreds of felony cases
waiting to be reviewed for prosecution," said Audrey Cromwell, County
Attorney in Gallatin County, Mont.
Caseload levels have been influenced by government
"funding shocks" in the past two decades. The 2008 financial crisis
and its resulting recession reduced state budgets, employee rank and payroll,
shrinking the staff available to carry out prosecutors' requests for help.
APA also cited changing legal requirements and new
technologies, as well as victims’ rights laws that require prosecutors to spend
more time working with victims.
Some 46 states have enacted "open
discovery" laws, up from about a third of the states in 2004. The measures
generally increase the requirements for timely evidence collection.
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