Impact of COVID-19 on Those Awaiting a Jury Trial
The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered just about every aspect of everyday life. Nearing a year since the first restrictions to combat the virus back in March 2019, most industries are continuing to postpone or adjust their normal procedures to get work done. In mid to late March, many industries decided to close down or move online to stop the spread of COVID-19, many with the mindset that it would a temporary, short-term closure. Over nine months later, most are not back to normal operating status, and have had to figure out different ways to continue to conduct business, and deal with the long-lasting effects of the pandemic.
In March, courthouses across the country shut down and postponed most operations, including hearings, meetings, and trials. Originally, most thought operations would be postponed for a few weeks, but many courthouses have not yet resumed jury trials, and the backlog of unfinished business is continuing to grow every day. The nature of conducting jury trials depends greatly on human interaction, between parties, the judge, and between the jurors themselves. How to safely, yet effectively, conduct jury trials in light of the pandemic is an issue that courts are still figuring out how to adequately regulate. However, in addition to growing pile of cases that have been postponed for months or even indefinitely, there is another effect of postponing that has serious consequences – those who cannot afford bail are sitting in jail waiting even longer for their trial date for their case to be heard.
Under normal circumstances, people accused of serious crimes who cannot afford bail sit in jail, wait for their trial date to determine further actions. However, with jury trials being postponed in many jurisdictions since March, those accused are sitting in jails for months, with no end in sight as to when they will be able to have their case heard and be formally charged, or released. Jury trials are not always finished in a relatively short time, and can take weeks, or even months, for the trial to conclude and for decisions to be reached. The timeline is being prolonged the longer trials are postponed, and people are sitting in jail without formal charges for months, and now coming up on a year, with no progress towards a decision or conclusion on their case.
Jail overpopulation is already a serious issue in the United States, and the rampant spread of COVID-19 has created even more problems for those in jails and prisons. States and federal prisons found they were unprepared to handle the spread of COVID-19 among inmates and employees who worked in the prisons. In addition to inmates staying longer while awaiting their postponed trials, the spread of COVID-19 has affected approximately 1 in 5 of those in jail or prison. Some jurisdictions have attempted to combat the effect and spread of COVID-19 by ordering pre-trial release for those who are awaiting trial for non-serious and non-violent crimes. Other jurisdictions have instructed courts to take the impact of COVID-19 in jails into account when setting bail for those accused of less serious or dangerous crimes, to allow for those to be able to afford bail and avoid sitting in jail waiting for trial. Regardless, the need to be able to conduct jury trials is a growing priority the longer the pandemic continues to impact the ability for varying industries to operate.
Many operations that cannot take place in person due to the pandemic have moved to a virtual format, and while courts have attempted to move some business to a virtual format, many jurisdictions have not conducted any virtual jury trials. There are many hurdles that come along with attempting to hold a jury trial virtually; ensuring that all jurors and parties have adequate access to a device and internet, potential technology troubles or outages, or lack of access for jurors to witness parties’ demeanor, to name a few. However, it has become clear that a solution needs to be found, as thousands of accused individuals are sitting in jail, awaiting trials that are being postponed for longer periods of time each week as the pandemic continues to affect the everyday operations of the courts.
Though a COVID-19 vaccine has just become approved in the last few weeks, the pandemic is far from over, and it will be months before a sense of “normalcy” may return. Courts need to consider what the best option is for moving forward, as the backlog of cases will continue to grow. Are virtual trials, though not ideal, the best option to at least start moving forward in clearing out cases? Could hybrid models of trials be an option that could be successful? When courts can start holding in person jury trials, will all potential jurors feel comfortable in an in-person courtroom setting? These are just a few of the questions that courts will continue to have to address in the coming months, as the long-lasting effects of the pandemic on the courts will continue to grow.