TOPEKA, (KSNT)—A rise in crime is adding to an already stressed court backlog. Some states said it will take months for criminal cases to come to trial. And in Kansas, it’s impacting prosecutors, judges, and people waiting to hear back on their case.
Maban Wright, Deputy Public Defender for Kansas’ Third Judicial District, told Kansas Capitol Bureau on Thursday that the mounting backlog has put a hold on people coming to trial.
“I’m not sure whether ultimately we’ll see a greater number of cases filed this year than we have in previous,” Wright said.
Many states have struggled with getting through court backlogs, facing limitations due to the pandemic. Some prosecutors, like those in Chicago, resorted to pleading out and dismissing cases to get through the caseload.
This has been exacerbated by a rise in violent crime in the U.S. during the pandemic. The latest FBI figures reported a 5.6% increase in violent crimes in 2020. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s report shows another extraordinary leap for murders that year, which rose 48.5% between 2019 and 2020. That’s the highest total increase in nearly three decades.
Kansas legislators pushed to speed up the process for serious violent crimes last year, and give prosecutors and courts time to clear a backlog of several thousand criminal cases.
The Senate approved a bill Wednesday night that would suspend until May 1, 2023, a law aimed at protecting a criminal defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial. The law requires cases to come to trial within five months of a defendant who has been jailed entering a plea, and within six months if the defendant is free on bond.
In March, state lawmakers said there was a backlog of about 5,000 criminal cases. Prosecutors worried that many of them would have to be dismissed if the deadlines were not suspended.
According to a spokesperson for the Kansas Judicial Branch, courts developed several methods for managing jury proceedings safely during the pandemic.
The pace of jury trials has been slower for a variety of reasons related to the pandemic, including community health conditions, juror availability, and COVID infections or exposure among people involved in the jury trial.”Spokesperson, Kansas Judicial Branch
Despite the efforts, the wait for trials in some cases continues to far exceed the times prior to the pandemic.
“You could wait at least 5 months for an in-custody case to get to trial. I think now that would be a pretty fast setting. A lot of things are getting set much further down the road.” said Jessica Glendening, an Assistant Public Defender with the state’s Third Judicial District. “Other cases wait longer for smaller hearings as well. I think the result is people are staying in jail quite a bit longer.”
House Bill 2078 requires the Office of Judicial Administration to prepare and submit a report to the Senate Committee on Judiciary and the House Committee on Judiciary on or before January 17, 2022, and January 16, 2023, documenting by judicial district the number of criminal cases that are pending, resolved, or newly filed and the number of jury trials conducted in criminal cases. That report will be available in January.
Meanwhile, the backlog continues to grow, and while it’s presumed that dockets are never cleared due to new cases getting filed, a spokesperson for Shawnee County District Courts said it could take “at least 1-2 years” to get through the load, and that each judge currently has “about 250 cases” in front of them, which is about 100 more than they’ve seen in years prior.
Like Glendening, Wright said that the wait can have undeniable consequences for people waiting for things to get back to normal.
“A person who remains in jail for any significant period of time runs the risk of losing their job, losing their housing, fraying family relationships.”