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Criminal case backlog forces courts to adapt

Courts are limited in their ability to hold trials because of social distancing requirements from the Idaho Supreme Court.
Credit: KTVB Staff
Ada County courthouse

BOISE, Idaho — This story originally appeared on The Idaho Press website.

Jury trials across Idaho, which the state’s Supreme Court had put on hold to prevent the spread of COVID-19, are set to resume next month — calling into question how district courts will handle the backlog of criminal cases without further impeding defendants’ right to a speedy trial.

Advocates in recent years have raised the possibility of holding certain hearings at night in order to better facilitate court access for defendants or witnesses who don't have the flexibility to miss work or school, but locally courts have stated that such an initiative would be too costly to implement at present.

Certain courts across Idaho, such as drug courts and mental health courts, do operate after hours. Richard Eppink, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, said he’s unaware of much of a push for night court in Idaho, though “it would make a huge difference” in the push to get cases tried.

Judges and prosecutors are instead preparing to roll up their sleeves and move forward with trials full speed ahead, addressing criminal cases with incarcerated defendants first, followed by criminal cases where defendants have been bonded out of jail, then civil cases as a final priority.

Jury proceedings can commence March 1 under the condition that a county's seven-day incidence rate is not higher than 25 new daily cases per 100,000 population, according to a Feb. 13 updated order from the Supreme Court. 

Judge Steven Hippler, administrative district judge for Ada County, said the county’s case backlog is primarily in misdemeanor and felony cases. Last fall, the court was able to hold roughly 17 jury trials, “but nowhere near the 100-plus a quarter that we typically try,” he said.

Courts are limited in their ability to hold trials because of social distancing requirements from the Idaho Supreme Court. When those restrictions lift, "that’s when I think we’ll see a real push to get the backlog taken care of,” Hippler said.

Night court isn’t an option right now from a practical standpoint, Hippler said. “In the courts, we’re operating very leanly in terms of our personnel, with probably less resources than we need to just do what we’re doing now. … To some extent night court on that scale would require a duplication of services — not just for judges, clerks or court reporters, but court operations and security.”

It would also require witnesses, experts and law enforcement to be present after hours for trials.

Night court has been implemented in other areas of the country. In Lancaster County, Nebraska, for example, the court has launched a pilot program for after-hours hearings, specifying that night court provides "greater access to the justice system to those individuals that cannot miss work" without risking termination of employment. The initiative in Lancaster County also allows individuals with children to arrange for a family member who is off work to babysit while they attend proceedings.

Other efforts: Jail sweep program, mediation

In Ada County, the court has implemented a jail sweep program where jail personnel and magistrates look at “who we can get out safely,” Hippler said.

Prosecutors have worked to facilitate agreements to release inmates with nonviolent charges, though Hippler pointed out that people are ending up back in the jails on violations of release orders. Some inmates in the jails get stuck simply because they can’t afford bond or don’t have transportation to hearings, resulting in further violations. 

Defendants worried about COVID-19 transmission in the jails may feel pressure to accept plea agreements instead of waiting months for trial. Idaho has not yet prioritized inmates for COVID-19 vaccines, and detention staff are eligible but not required to get a vaccine. 

Throughout the pandemic, courts in Canyon County have been using senior judges and certain sitting judges to address some of the criminal case backlogs, 3rd District Judge George Southworth said. 

“They’ve been mediating and resolving a lot of them and frankly, defense counsel, the public defender's office and the prosecuting attorney’s office have been working very hard to resolve a large number of cases that may not have been resolved without COVID-19,” he added. 

One senior judge on average conducts mediations in criminal trials four days a week and has done so for the last month and a half. “He has been able to resolve virtually all of them,” Southworth said. 

The district court in Canyon County will address a smaller case backlog than in Ada County due to its lower population, which is approximately half of Ada’s more than 481,000 residents, and judges expect to resume jury trials March 15.

Members of the Central District Health's Board of Health on Friday confirmed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is anticipating that public safety restrictions such as mask wearing and social distancing will remain in effect well into the fall, and potentially even into the winter, which judges expect to hinder efforts to try all cases.

Judges in both Canyon and Ada counties emphasized that they are taking precautions to keep everyone safe moving into March. Mask requirements will be enforced, social distancing has been adhered to, and jurors summoned for duty will have the opportunity to raise safety concerns through questionnaires, said Ada County Trial Court Administrator Sandra Barrios.

"We have cleaning procedures in place so that everyone is able to be safe and can be concentrated in doing their job," she said, "whether that is deciding the case or defending the case, so that defendant knows they will have access to a group of individuals focused on that particular case, without worrying about getting sick." 

FLEXIBLE SOLUTIONS

Local efforts to offer alternatives to the traditional court process are seeing success. 

In Canyon County, for example, a pilot mediation program to help tenants and landlords find alternatives to eviction court is reducing the number of eviction cases that end up in court. 

Another positive example is at Interfaith Sanctuary in Boise. The shelter's executive director, Jodi Peterson-Stigers, has worked with the public defender’s office and two judges in Ada County to create what she describes as a “homeless court” to address the kinds of misdemeanor violations related to homelessness, including inability to pay fines and get to hearings consistently.

A public defender and probation officer come to the shelter or hold meetings via Zoom weekly, addressing probation charges, the high cost of drug tests, community service hours and scheduling court appearances. 

Through dialogue with the courts, the organization “created a lot of different ways to overcome the reasons why this particular population is failing in the court system and getting stuck there. They didn’t have the tools to be successful,” Peterson-Stigers said. “You have to look at why there’s so much of the same thing happening over and over again and then identify what the pieces are that are causing common failure, and then you have to fix it.”

More from our partners at The Idaho Press: 1st person pleads guilty in Treasure Valley counterfeit cellphone case