1. Police arrest you.
  2. You go to jail to wait for a hearing to decide if the charges justify going to court.
  3. You go to court.
  4. You’re charged as guilty
  5. You go to prison. 

That’s the order of how things went in the olden days. Now, with COVID, in many cases, the police arrest you and you go to jail. Hard stop right there. 

Police are as productive as ever. When they catch someone who looks like they’re doing something illegal, they issue an arrest and the other parts of the criminal justice system takes it from there. It’s the other parts of the criminal justice system that has a bad case of COVID which has ground the daily operations of hearings and court cases to a slow and unproductive pace. 

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the pandemic forced Philadelphia’s criminal courts to shut down for much of 2020, and some defendants approached a year in jail without a hearing. Hearing backlogs has exceeded 13,000 cases, according to the Defender Association of Philadelphia. Ten months into the pandemic, the rule guaranteeing a speedy trial remains suspended. The old rule where someone who sits in jail for 200 days without a preliminary hearing would force prosecutors to show probable cause that a crime occurred is virtually worthless. 

When the president judge of Philadelphia’s Municipal Court was asked about this, his response didn’t have much to say for the thousands of people sitting in jail awaiting trial. He focused mostly on “…the health of our people: the attorneys on all sides, the sheriffs, witnesses, victims, police, anyone involved in our court system.”

In most cases, there’s a certain population of folks sitting in jail who could be sitting at home awaiting trial if someone would bail them out. Unfortunately, about half of prisoners have detainers, meaning the arrest put them in violation of parole or probation and they are not eligible for bail because you surely can’t see your parole officer when you’re sitting in jail. 

And then there’s the case of a 31-year old Delco guy who got caught up in the George Floyd protests in Center City Philadelphia on May 30. He was one of a dozen people arrested that night accused of burglarizing Macy’s even though he says he never went in the store. It’s February 3 and there’s still no preliminary hearing scheduled for this guy and he’s stuck because of a parole detainer for a crime he served his time for. 

While sitting in jail, he lost his apartment and job, lost parental rights to his 8-year-old son and contracted COVID-19 while incarcerated. And people wonder why black men are so angry. 

Keir Bradford-Grey, chief of the Defender Association, says 75% of her clients arrested at protests were black — and what she expected to be scant evidence of wrongdoing.

Some courts are being proactive in an effort to bypass the snail paced criminal justice system by offering the gift of a guilty plea as a get out of jail card sometimes called “rocket dockets” in which hundreds of defendants accept plea deals. Keir Bradford-Grey worries clients are feeling pressure to take unfavorable plea agreements to get out of jail, often without regard to the lasting consequences of a conviction.

As our Delco guys is quoted as saying in the Inquirer article, “At this point, they kind of broke me,” he said. “I just want to get out of here.”

Criminal justice with COVID is making us all sick.