Courts Getting Back to Normal, Reducing Backlog after Rescission of COVID Rules

(Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

By Catherine Potente

PHILADELPHIA, PA – An increase in jury trial capacity in Philadelphia’s court system recently garnered praise here from the district attorney and others, following a slowdown after the Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court statewide judicial emergency declaration from two years ago because of COVID-19.

Since the statewide declaration on March 16, 2020, collaborative efforts from law enforcement and criminal legal system partners led to the successful disposal of open criminal cases, while upholding the accused’s constitutional rights, said court officials.

They note the First Judicial District authorized an administrative order concerning the use of Advanced Community Technology. This order permits continued participation from attorneys and defendants in virtual non-trial court proceedings in an effort to uphold the accused’s constitutional rights, but also follow public health and safety guidelines. And a courtroom for additional proceedings and preliminary hearings was opened in a county jail.

Beginning March 14, 2022, the First Judicial District announced an increase in criminal jury trial capacity, after changes in public health guidance occurred.

Following this announcement, the jury trial capacity will increase to eight per week in comparison to four jury trials, which is what the trial capacity was for about a year. Cases where the accused were in custody awaiting trial were prioritized during those proceedings.

Philly District Attorney Larry Krasner stated, “When the statewide judicial emergency was declared back in March 2020, many of us hoped we’d be back to work staffing courtrooms within a couple of weeks. That turned out to be wildly optimistic as challenges to all of criminal justice have at times been enormous.”

“I want to thank Administrative Judge Lisette Shirdan-Harris and Supervising Judge Lucretia Clemons and First Judicial District leaders and staff for their steady and nimble guidance throughout the COVID court emergency,” Krasner added.

“The collaborative efforts of our system partners and dedicated professionals—including police, prosecutors, public defenders, private defense counsel, and support staff who worked non-stop to achieve safety and justice while following the Constitution and the law0—are why we are now disposing of as many or more cases per week as we were before March 2020,” noted DA Krasner.

Krasner explained that during the week of March 8, 2020, 807 cases were closed, or disposed of, while 1,130 cases were closed during the week of March 6, 2022.

He noted the backlog of cases reached a peak on March 7, 2021 with 43, 534 cases. Although there were 33,433 open criminal cases in Philadelphia on March 11, 2022, the number was greater than the open cases before the judicial emergency, but below the pandemic peak.

Kathryn Cacciamani, representative of the Private Criminal Defense Bar, stated, “There was obviously a mountainous backlog of criminal cases in Philadelphia as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, through the very hard work and the thinking outside of the box of all of the criminal justice partners, I am happy to report that Philadelphia is clearing the backlog.”

Cacciamani added, “I especially would like to thank the First Judicial District whose judges have made this possible. The judicial leadership team of Judge Lisette Shirdan-Harris, Judge Lucretia Clemons, and Judge Patrick Dugan should be recognized for putting in the hard work and brainpower to come up with innovative approaches that have alleviated the logjam of cases and better delivered justice in Philadelphia.

“Judge Clemons is always willing to listen to the partners and she has instituted a weekly in-person meeting where we brainstorm to come up with new and inventive ways to tackle criminal justice challenges in Philadelphia. We hope to keep this strong partnership as we move forward.”

DA Krasner asserted, “Our backlog of cases, especially the most serious cases, is real and daunting, but we are making real progress on reducing the backlog as well. Staffing remains a very serious problem for the courts, the public defenders, and DAO prosecutors due in part to inadequate funding to hire and retain talented employees, including Black and brown employees, in criminal justice work in Philadelphia. We look to City Council and the Mayor to solve that problem in the budget.”

Despite an increase in accused persons awaiting trial for serious offenses, Philadelphia’s jail population has stabilized and is consistent with the jail population levels in 2018, a time when police and prosecutorial reforms reduced incarceration for non-violent misdemeanors regarding mental illness, drug possession, or petty theft, Krasner said.

About The Author

Catherine is a fourth year undergraduate student at UC Davis, majoring in Psychology and minoring in Communications. She plans to graduate in 2022 and is interested in studying law.

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