Monday, January 22, 2024

Significant increase in pending criminal cases since pandemic

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 prosecution models.

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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