By Darling Gonzalez
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Wall Street Journal Reporter Laura Kusisto has examined the effects of backlogged court trials due to the COVID-19 pandemic, interviewing San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju in her article, “Covid-19 Pummeled the U.S. Legal System. It May Take Years to Catch Up.”
Over the past two years, San Francisco courts have faced overwhelming case backlogs as the pandemic affected trial dates due to social distancing requirements and other consequences of COVID-19.
“Tens of thousands of legal cases ranging from minor thefts to civil disputes to murder are stuck in limbo in state courts around the country, a situation that has left some defendants waiting in jail and strained prosecutors’ and defense attorneys’ ability to do their jobs,” Kusisto writes.
Kusisto also adds that during the wave of the Omicron variant many courts had shut down in-person proceedings more weeks and months at a time over the last couple of years.
Due to the monumental load of cases that were backlogged, San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju petitioned for the California court of appeals to address the large amount of backlogs that initiated at the start of the pandemic.
Kusisto notes, “According to his office, as of mid-January there were some 250 San Francisco defendants waiting in jail beyond their legally guaranteed deadlines for a speedy trial.”
Raju explains that defendants’ rights for a speedy trial are deemed hopeless if there is no court to exercise the constitutional protections for those defendants.
The overwhelming backlogs of cases has also drastically created staffing shortages as many overworked lawyers are lured into the private sector by law firms whose caseloads have increased and are able to provide higher pay.
Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez explains this effect on his own office as staffing shortages have strongly affected the 16,000 pending cases and impacted many lawyers who are “burned-out.”
Martinez described that he had lost more than 60 attorneys during the prior fiscal year which amounted to 35 percent of his staff, Kusisto added.
Due to these circumstances, Martinez explains that many of the remaining lawyers are left with larger caseloads and often with less experience.
Kusisto adds how prosecutors are concerned about the lack of accountability for those who have committed crimes, and the delay of resolving cases can also lead to a delay in the distribution of mental health treatment and court-ordered drugs to those who need it.
Although there is a persistent lack of change in the courts, San Francisco District Attorney Boudin “shares a deep concern over significant trial delays in San Francisco” as he has urged courts to make more courtrooms available for trials, describes Rachell Marshall, a spokeswoman.
Boudin states, “The backlog not only impacts those who are accused of crimes but has also delayed justice for crime survivors who seek closure.”