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'We are backlogged up the wazoo.' MI justice system grappling with case backlog due to pandemic

Posted at 11:23 PM, Aug 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-20 23:23:00-04

(WSYM) — Since the pandemic started, Governor Gretchen Whitmer this week spoke about how violent crimes increased.

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"Violent crime was up 12% statewide in 2020. Murders up 36%," she said.

At the same time, the courts slowed down. So how has that impacted our justice system?

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy is now asking for help.

"We are backlogged up the wazoo," she said.

Examining the problem in Wayne County, it is severe. Worthy says there is a backlog of about 10,000 cases with new ones coming in every day.

"And so we are really under the gun. I have been doing this for a long time. As an assistant prosecutor, as a judge, and now as an elected prosecutor. I have never seen anything like this," she said.

Why are so many cases backlogged? Well, courts statewide shut down certain services for a time. Then, as they continued operations, they did so carefully.

For example, on the 4th floor at Macomb County Circuit Court, they have four courtrooms, but only one jury trial is allowed to happen on this floor at a time. The reason? They want to make sure people can socially distance themselves and prevent the spread of COVID-19. It is only one way the pandemic is impacting how fast courts can move.

"That means three other courtrooms that could have a potential to have jury trials are not," said Macomb County Prosecutor Peter Lucido.

Lucido says when you stop trials, defendants delay accepting plea deals to avoid trial, creating not just a trial backlog, but a case backlog.

The Court Administrator at Macomb County’s 16th Judicial Circuit Court says in 2019, it held 116 criminal jury trials and 39 civil jury trials. From the onset of the pandemic through May 2021, the county held a total of four jury trials.

Courtesy: Trial Court Backlogs Backgrounder, March 2021

In 2019, there were 2,155 jury verdicts in Michigan. In 2020: 592. This as courts slowed down due to the pandemic. And that problem continues.

"We only had about 25% of the trials that we had in 2019. So if those trials all have to be held, we are talking about a couple of years before we can catch up," said State Court Administrator Tom Boyd.

Boyd says handling cases faster will require more people.

"We at the state court administrative office and the Michigan Supreme Court have reached out to our legislative and executive branches and asked for more money," he said.

Court leaders, we spoke to say they need more clerks, judges, and prosecutors. Until they get that, they are doing what you could call justice triage.

"Those with the most serious charges and those that have been in jail the longest. That is the priority that we are approaching," said Third Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Kenny.

"We are really worried about getting these cases tried and getting them tried safely, too. We don’t want to bring people into the courthouse at too fast a clip and having a COVID outbreak, too, no one wants to see that either," said Worthy.

"And if we have any spikes with this new variant. We are all in trouble, every court," said Lucido.

Elle Meyers

Elle Meyers

6:12 PM, Apr 12, 2021

State Capitol

Neighborhood Reporter

Elle Meyers

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