The Novel Coronavirus is severely affecting the United States criminal justice system. According to experts, it’s delaying the right to a fair trial of the detainees. They further add that the pandemic is severely impacting the criminal defendant’s right to a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution. M.A. Criminal Defense Lawyers believe that this crisis is perhaps the worst one within correctional institutions, as wardens of prisons across the United States fear a viral outbreak, which eventually may lead to riots.
On March 13th, the Federal Bureau of Prisons issued an order that social and legal visits and inmate transfers shall be put on hold until further notice. However, inmate transfers did take a few times despite the notice being issued. Post 1 week inmates across the nation began testing positive for COVID-19.
It should be noted that only a quarter-million of the nation’s 2.3 million inmates are federal prisoners, however, with about 1.3 million in state prisons, and about three-quarters of a million in local jails, pressure has been mounting from officers healthcare leaders and even some prosecutors to release as many low-level inmates as possible. The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) is monitoring how many courts have taken action for restricting or canceling jury trials. The organization has also instructed courts to indulge in tele-hearings or teleconferencing
Criminal Justice Section Chairperson Kim Parker notes that most states enjoy a statutory speedy trial limits and believes that the impact of the virus will overwhelm dockets in the courthouses. She further states that the effects of the disease will lead to delay, though.
According to recent reports, most federal and state courts have postponed their criminal jury trials. New York is among the worst-hit states, where the state courts responded by ordering lower courts to finish pending criminal and civil trials while delaying new trials until any further notice. In Washington, multiple courts either suspended or delayed trials.
Courts at all levels have either postponed or canceled the proceedings in response to the spread of the virus. The U.S. Supreme court building too is closed until further notice but is open for official business purposes with case filing deadlines remaining in place.
California, on the other hand, didn’t issue any statewide delays or restrictions, leaving it up to individual courts to make the final decision. A few courts in the United States have decided to limit the exposure to the virus by encouraging bond review hearings through video or teleconferencing.
The court of Common Pleas of Crawford County in Pennsylvania, for example, has issued guidelines that limit sentence and parole and probation violation hearings to be heard only through teleconferencing. The court also issued guidelines for preliminary hearings for inmates.
In Kansas, the state legislature introduced a bill that gives the chief justice the emergency power to exceed the deadlines for speedy trials. The power has been issued, keeping in mind the situation that the health and safety of mankind are at stake.
Overcrowding in jails will have an adverse impact on public health, according to the chairperson. It’ll pose a threat to the lives of inmates, health care workers, kitchen staff, civilian mentors, and all others. Undeniably, it’ll be difficult to manage.
The Innocent Project, which is aimed at helping victims of a wrongful conviction, is the worst affected. According to M.A. criminal defense lawyers, the state correctional facilities are not yet prepared to handle such proceedings amidst such a crisis. They further added that it’s also disappointing as it will delay justice for their clients. Criminal defense attorney believes that many inmates are pretrial detainees who have been arrested but not convicted.
They further add that one of the greatest at-risk populations in an epidemic are people residing in prisons. If the Coronavirus manages to breach the boundaries of the prison, it’ll be an arduous task to get rid of it. The best way is to order an instant release of non-violent inmates. With more than 2 million inmates, the prisoner count in the United States is the highest in the world. More than 540,000 incarcerated people who haven’t been convicted or sentenced yet are still behind bars.
The best thing that the prosecutors can do is to cut down their caseloads by offering more plea deals. According to Neal Sonnett, a former assistant U.S. attorney and currently the member of the Criminal Justice Section, state prosecutors, and public defenders might have 20 or 30 cases ready for trial in any given week.
Undeniably, this disruption will create more avenues for pressure on those accused of a crime to plead guilty, rather than going through the whole process to try and establish they weren’t actually guilty. Veteran criminal defense attorney believe that the current situation is probably the best opportunity for the criminal justice system to change the way the case proceedings are usually done.
Federal law enforcement agencies are focusing on ways in which criminals can seek profit from the current scenario. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and several other prosecutors around the country are trying their best to curb Corona virus-related fraud. The United States Custom and Border Protection officials have enforced restrictions on travel and commerce along the borders with Canada and Mexico, disallowing all nonessential travel.
The Migration and Customs Enforcement agency is continuing to pursue their investigations related to child exploitation, gangs, narcotics, human trafficking, and smuggling, but the agency has ceased enforcement operations at or near health care facilities. The Drug Enforcement Administration too is pursuing its investigations related to illegal drugs. The officials are working to ensure that necessary medicines remain available to people.
Looking at the present scenario, it goes without saying that the overall functioning of the judicial system has taken a bad hit and will take some time to get back to the track.