How Are Backlogged Courts Deciding Which Criminal Cases to Hear?
For several months, courts around the nation closed to prevent COVID-19 transmission. This unfortunate yet necessary measure has led to a backlog of over 16,500 criminal cases throughout New Jersey. Now that courts are finally opening up, the massive New Jersey coronavirus backlog may change the way certain cases are handled.
Older Cases Are Being Prioritized
The crime committed is not the only thing the court will consider as they pick which cases to start with. When trying to decide which cases to hear first, the court will also take into account how long it has been since the person was first arrested. In New Jersey, all defendants are guaranteed the right to a speedy trial. This is meant to keep police from indefinitely holding onto a person simply because they are suspected of a crime. A speedy trial is also necessary because it may be harder to obtain accurate witness statements and other relevant information as time passes.
Legally, a person must be indicted within 90 days of being detained. Furthermore, a person who has been indicted cannot be detained in jail for more than 180 days following the indictment. It is possible for a judge to declare a mistrial because of a lack of a jury, which may have happened when it was considered unsafe to create a jury. If the court has declared a mistrial, New Jersey law specifies that a new trial must start within 120 days of the mistrial entry.
If a person is detained in jail for longer than this amount of time, they can be released from jail. This is typically something the courts try to avoid, even when there is a criminal case backlog. As long as the prosecutor feels that they have a decent case against a person, the court will prioritize those who are about to reach this statute of limitations. This means that both indictments and criminal trials for older cases will proceed as quickly as possible. Even if the older trial is not for an especially severe crime, it may be tried simply to ensure that defendants’ rights to a speedy trial are met. The older a case is, the more likely it is to show up on the court’s docket.
More Serious Crimes Are More Likely to Be Tried
The backlog is so severe that some Morristown criminal defense lawyers and other legal experts feel that it may be impossible for courts to meet trial deadlines. In these situations, some charges may inevitably be dismissed. The courts are aware of this, so they are trying to ensure that all serious and violent criminal cases are heard first. They feel that if some potential criminals are set free it is best to ensure that it is only those who have committed less serious or nonviolent crimes. More time and energy will be focused on serious crimes instead of crimes that may be considered petty or victimless.
Another reason that courts are focusing on more serious crimes is because they want to keep jailhouses as empty as possible. Reducing the number of people in jail makes things easier for wardens to keep the inhabitants safe. Typically, those who are arrested for less serious crimes have a low bail that they can easily pay. More serious criminal charges make it harder for a person to get bail. In some cases, the bail amount may be so high that it is hard for the defendant to pay. In other circumstances, bail may be denied altogether. Since the courts recognize that full jails are going to lead to problems, they are making an effort to help keep jails as empty as possible.
What counts as a “serious” crime tends to be a matter of personal opinion. Typically, crimes involving violence or large amounts of theft tend to be considered more serious. Things that are felonies or aggravated felonies may get court attention sooner than misdemeanor crimes. Some examples of the types of criminal cases that may be prioritized include:
- Sexual assault
- Armed burglary
Cases That Cannot Be Plea Bargained Are More Likely to Go to Court
To deal with the New Jersey coronavirus backlog, most courts are focusing on plea bargains over jury trials. Only about 10% of criminal cases actually end up going to trial usually. Instead, the majority of people charged with a crime end up accepting plea bargains. A plea bargain is an agreement where the prosecution agrees to reduced sentencing in exchange for the defendant pleading guilty right away.
Even more COVID criminal cases are likely to end in plea bargains than usual because these bargains are quicker and easier than a full trial by jury. The court is desperate to get through cases as quickly as they can, so they are being more lenient on the types of bargains being approved. Many prosecutors report that they are going out of their way to create plea bargains whenever possible.
However, plea bargains are typically only an option in certain types of cases. Most prosecutors will skip a plea bargain if they feel that they have enough evidence to almost guarantee a conviction. A complete lack of evidence can also make it hard to settle a plea bargain since the defendant and their Morristown criminal defense lawyer may think that their chances of being acquitted are high. Furthermore, if a crime is considered particularly serious, such as first-degree murder, all plea bargains may be taken off the table. Plea bargains may not be offered to repeat offenders and others who are deemed to be a danger to the public.
Since the courts are so busy, they may advise prosecutors to avoid wasting time trying to get a plea bargain for these situations. Instead, they may prioritize trials for these sorts of cases to get them out of the way. This lets the court spend its time addressing the more controversial cases while plea bargains can be used to clear away more open-and-shut cases. With New Jersey courts encouraging plea bargains instead of trials, the only cases likely to go to a jury are those that cannot be plea bargained away.
How to Handle COVID Criminal Cases
If you are facing criminal charges during COVID-19, you cannot just assume that they will go away. Courts may be focusing on more serious cases, but they are still taking time to consider every case that goes through their offices. The new focus on plea deals may give you favorable terms, but you should always get legal advice before accepting any plea deal. An experienced Morristown criminal defense lawyer can help you decide if it is worth waiting for a trial.
The law firm of Gregg Wisotsky is here to help during these trying times. We are happy to provide free consultations and review your case. Our team has worked on a variety of criminal defense cases, ranging from drug offenses to violent crimes. To learn more, call our Morris County office at 973-898-0161 or fill out our online contact form.