Justice delayed: Courts overwhelmed by pandemic backlog

Delays and backlogs in criminal and civil cases are spreading throughout California’s court system. Half as many cases were resolved — 1.4 million fewer — from March through August last year than during the same period in 2019, according to a report the state judicial branch’s administration put together.

No one knows how many thousands of cases have been caught in the pandemic backlog. But the delays mean that many people across the state are staying behind bars for longer, waiting for lawsuits to settle, fighting for child support, battling criminal charges and, generally, struggling to get justice during the worst pandemic and economic downturn of the past century. 

During this winter’s deadly COVID-19 surge, many of California’s county superior courts have shut down or further delayed in-person proceedings like jury trials, which were already moving at a slower speed compared with pre-pandemic times.

Courts have kept the doors open virtually — if not always in person — for critical functions like issuing restraining orders and arraigning criminal defendants.

And in an effort to keep justice moving while also protecting health and safety, California’s top judicial officials have issued more than 400 emergency orders and rules that grant courts more flexibility in where they can hold hearings using remote tools and extending certain deadlines for trials.

Still, attorneys say the caseloads are straining virtually all parts of the system across the state. Defendants behind bars are regularly going into quarantine, delaying proceedings. And everything just takes longer.

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