U.S. Courthouses' Backlog On Criminal Cases Could Take Years To Get Through Because of the pandemic, prosecutors in Chicago are preparing to drop thousands of low-level cases because it will be impossible to bring them to trial in time to meet a constitutional deadline.

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As The Nation's Courthouses Reopen, They Face Massive Backlogs In Criminal Cases

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Criminal courts are slowly reopening across this country. Many shut down because of the pandemic, and now they confront a massive backlog of cases. In Chicago, that has prosecutors preparing to possibly drop thousands of so-called low-level cases because they say it's impossible to catch up. Patrick Smith of WBEZ reports.

PATRICK SMITH, BYLINE: In March, the criminal courthouse in Chicago started hosting jury trials again after a year without them. Kathryn Huth was among the first batch of potential jurors who showed up in the morning to do their civic duty.

KATHRYN HUTH: I was surprised to hear that they weren't open already. I mean, it's been a long time for somebody who wants a jury trial to not be able to get one.

SMITH: Since then, Cook County has hosted only about two jury trials per week. That's a very gradual reopening. And at that pace, the criminal case backlog will continue to swell. But now the Illinois Supreme Court says courts here are going to fully reopen on October 1. That's when social distancing requirements will be lifted and when the constitutional right to a speedy trial will be reinstated statewide. That pattern is being repeated in jurisdictions across the country as courthouses try to return to normal with thousands of people who have been waiting a really long time for their day in court. In Chicago, defense attorney Adam Sheppard expects to see thousands of speedy trial demands right away.

ADAM SHEPPARD: You can be sure there is going to be a flood of them. It is going to be overwhelming.

SMITH: The speedy trial right in Illinois says once a person makes a demand, prosecutors have to take the case to trial within 120 days if the defendant is in custody and 160 days if not. If they can't, the case gets thrown out. Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx says right now they have a backlog of a whopping 35,000 criminal cases, and that's only felony cases. There are thousands more misdemeanor cases awaiting trial.

KIM FOXX: I don't think there's any court system in the world that would be prepared to have that many trials.

SMITH: That's why Foxx is instructing her prosecutors to drop nonviolent cases if they can't reach a plea deal.

FOXX: We cannot allow for violent cases to fall through the cracks, and so using that calculus, making sure that those cases that could be dealt with outside of the system are, in fact, purged from the system so we can focus our attention on violence.

SMITH: Meg Garvin heads the National Crime Victim Law Institute at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland. She says other jurisdictions are also considering dropping a bunch of cases because of backlogs. She's concerned about the message that could send.

MEG GARVIN: What that says to communities is that you don't matter as much. And when you are told by a system you don't matter, you stop turning to the system.

SMITH: Garvin says crime victims have a legal and moral right to be consulted before prosecutors drop a case or agree to a plea deal. And she hopes prosecutors across the country won't deem any crimes involving human victims low level. Insha Rahman, vice president of the Vera Institute for Justice in New York City, says there are a lot of cases pending in courthouses throughout the country that don't involve human victims.

INSHA RAHMAN: Let's wipe the decks clean and only focus our resources and deal with the backlog for the most serious cases 'cause those are the ones where we can do better and we can do justice.

SMITH: That means possibly dropping cases like traffic violations, drug possession and retail theft. Data from the Cook County state's attorney indicate those types of charges make up thousands of their pending cases.

For NPR News, I'm Patrick Smith in Chicago.

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