COVID-related court closures and delays have left 6,700 people languishing behind bars, pretrial. In a new ruling, the New Jersey Supreme Court said judges may need to be reassigned to criminal cases to cut the backlog. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
The New Jersey Supreme Court has issued new guidance to protect defendants’ right to a speedy trial, with 6,700 people in prison awaiting trial — sometimes for years — because of pandemic-related court closures and restrictions.
In a unanimous Monday ruling that stems from a Burlington County murder case, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner also warned that judges may have to be reassigned to criminal cases, if the state’s severe shortage of judges persists, to ensure defendants aren’t incarcerated longer than two years before trial, as a 2017 state law forbids.
“When a trial cannot start at the two-year cap, a detained defendant’s liberty is at stake. As a result, if judicial vacancies remain at high levels, it may be necessary to reassign judges from their responsibilities elsewhere in the court system to try criminal cases,” Rabner wrote.
The decision is the first major ruling involving the speedy trial provision of New Jersey’s Criminal Justice Reform Act, which ended cash bail and limited pretrial detention to “high-risk” defendants with serious charges who are likely to reoffend or skip a court appearance. The act also sets time limits for prosecutors to get an indictment to 90 days and bring a case to trial to another 180 days. Since it took effect in January 2017, judges have ordered about 19% of pretrial defendants detained, according to the ruling.
Alexander Shalom of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey applauded the decision as proof the court wants to ensure people don’t spend too much time in prison before having their day in court.
“This ruling brings us closer to a time when statutory speedy trial protections will provide meaningful relief for people,” said Shalom, who argued the case before the court. “Disruptions caused by COVID are legitimate, and everyone acknowledges them. The question is, do we let those disruptions become the rule going forward?”
Jeffrey H. Sutherland, president of the County Prosecutors Association of New Jersey, also expressed support for Monday’s ruling.
“Faced with the challenges of COVID and balancing how it negatively impacted the ability of cases to safely move forward against the due process rights of those detained awaiting trial, the Supreme Court crafted an equitable solution with a built-in method of monitoring that the parties and the judiciary are taking all steps to ensure justice is timely delivered,” said Sutherland, also the Cape May County prosecutor.
The decision arose out of the case of Marcus Mackroy-Davis, who was arrested in November 2019 for a drive-by shooting that left a 20-year-old man dead. A judge ordered Mackroy-Davis, the alleged driver, to be detained in December 2019, and he was indicted for murder in February 2020.
He challenged his incarceration under the Criminal Justice Reform Act. His trial is scheduled to start July 12.
His trial delay is far from unusual.
Rabner noted in his ruling that the Administrative Office of the Courts has held more than 381,000 virtual court appearances involving more than 6 million participants since March 2020, when the rising number of COVID-19 cases led to statewide closures. Criminal cases were postponed by 461 days, and courts still aren’t fully back to normal, Rabner wrote.
“When the Judiciary restarted in-person trials in June 2021, with six feet of social distancing in place, few courtrooms throughout the state were large enough to house a criminal trial,” Rabner wrote. “Even with social distancing relaxed to three feet in March 2022, many courtrooms still cannot accommodate a criminal trial.”
Before the pandemic, criminal justice reforms like ending cash bail helped slash prison populations statewide, with the number of defendants detained pretrial dropping from 8,899 in early 2016 to 4,976 in early 2020, Rabner said.
But pandemic delays and restrictions sent that number soaring again, with 6,700 defendants now in prison awaiting trial, he said.
“On any given day, hundreds more are in custody as they wait for an initial appearance or detention hearing,” Rabner wrote.
The backlog will take time to subside, he added.
“We recognize there are not enough available courtrooms today to address the substantial number of pending criminal cases because of COVID-19 and its continuing effects on the justice system,” he wrote. “The backlog the pandemic created over the course of two years cannot be resolved in a matter of months.”
In Mackroy-Davis’ case, prosecutors said they were ready for trial but pandemic-related days held up the case. Rabner consequently rejected Mackroy-Davis’ plea to be released, with the decision noting that the Criminal Justice Reform Act requires defendants to be released from jail after two years if prosecutors are not ready to proceed after that amount of time.
But for other cases, Rabner wrote, defendants are entitled to release if they’ve been held two years pretrial and prosecutors still aren’t ready to try the case.
To protect defendants’ right to a speedy trial, Rabner ordered trial judges to schedule a hearing a month before the two-year cap expires to determine if prosecutors will be ready to proceed by then — and schedule monthly conferences afterward, to ensure a trial doesn’t get delayed interminably.
Shalom celebrated that guidance too.
“This was an issue that the Office of the Public Defender and the ACLU raised during argument, which is: We want to make sure that when prosecutors say ‘we’re ready,’ that means something,” Shalom said. “It’s not just some magic words, but instead is a real acknowledgment that the case is in its near-final form. And so I was really gratified to see that the court acknowledged that.”
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