Pandemic’s ripple effect on Sedgwick County’s judicial system, officials weigh in

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WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Due to the pandemic, there was a 60-day stretch last year where the district courts were completely shut down. Now officials believe it will take at least two years to catch up on hundreds of backlog cases.

Sedgwick County is currently at 100% capacity with more than 1,200 inmates. One hundred seventeen of those inmates face murder charges and consist 8.8% of the total jail population.

Col. Jared Schechter with the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office says this many homicide inmate causes grouping problems for the jail. That’s on top of max capacity causing grouping problems due to gang affiliation and other factors.

District Judge Jeff Goering says even with the courts being more open now than they have been during any point of the pandemic, they can only try around two murder cases a week. So at that pace, it’s going to take the courts a little more than a year to shuffle through all of the cases involving just homicide alone.

Judge Goering explained, “You can only run as fast as the people you have available to clear cases.”

This delay puts a strain on every level of Sedgwick County’s judicial system.

“Attorneys are simply dropping off the list. They’re saying they signed up for this to take maybe 20 high-end felony cases, and now you’re sending 40, 50, or 60,” Judge Goering.

Before the courts opened up to jury trials in September, non-jury trials were still able to happen.

“Every single thing that takes place in a case, they haven’t done any of it — so we are leaps and bounds ahead of those places,” said Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett

While crime seems to be on the rise, this backlog of cases isn’t caused by a lack of arrests.

“This is much bigger than police arresting everybody,” added Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay. “We really need to look at some of our issues in society that feeds into crime.”

For the jail, the stoppage meant more inmates with no trial date. This helped lead the jail to be consistently at 100% capacity.

“The inmates are under stress because they don’t know what’s go info to happen to their future they don’t where things are going to go or what’s going to happen, so it places that added stress upon them and which increases stress for the staff,” explained Col. Schechter.

Kansas state law dictates if the jail is full, officers still have a job to do.

“We don’t get to put out the no vacancy sign or put the sign up that we’re full,” said Col. Schechter. “It just means inmates back up in booking. It means they may stay in booking two, three, maybe four days in, which isn’t ideal.”

Judge Goering and District Attorney Bennett agree the solution is to move forward.

“You can’t let off the gas, meet every week,” said Bennett. “Talk constantly and communicate with the court, the council, the jail. Just make sure everyone is communicating. There’s no mystery to this.”

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