The slow reopening of the state means different things to different people.
For some, it’s back to lunches and shopping. But in the state’s court system, where delays are already baked into the process, empty courtrooms and locked courthouses make it look like justice has slowed to a crawl, although Judge Glenn Grant, who runs the state’s courts, says justice is not taking off during the quarantine.
“To date we’ve had about 35,000 remote proceedings involving approximately 320,000 participants and those have been bench trials, discovery motions, adoptions, drug court graduations, all kinds of proceedings,” he said. “The things that we have not been able to do is bring large gatherings of people such as juries, juries assembly and trials.”
And that’s no small thing when you’re sitting in the county jail, waiting for your day in court.
“Thankfully in New Jersey in 2017, we adopted pre-trial justice reform,” said Jennifer Sellitti who is with the public defender’s office. “I always shudder to think about how many people would be awaiting trial in our county jails had we not done that. So we were already ahead of the game a little bit there. But there are still people who have been put on hold, their cases are on hold. They’re sitting in detention and they have been on hold since March, so those trials will be a priority.”
The courts are in Phase One of a four-phase opening that moves to Phase Two on Monday, wherein 10% to 15% of the system’s staff will be back — with limited on-site activity. Anything involving a jury where even half the court staff is on hand, that’s for Phase Three and beyond. Those dates have still to be set. And that’s bad news for defendants.
“The speedy-trial law that we have in place generally provides 90 days to indict a person and 180 days within which to try them after that,” said Alex Shalom, senior supervising attorney for ACLU-NJ. “So 270 days from arrest to trial, but that is subject to excludable time and I think, in most cases, you see periods of incarceration that are closer to a year or year and a half before a person gets a trial. That’s in ordinary times.”
He continued: “But this is certainly an extraordinary thing and so what we have now is a situation where the soonest people are going to get trials is going to be after, say, a year of incarceration and you’re going to have many people looking at two and even three years.”
One of the lessons from the pandemic that many of the people in the court system — prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges — seem to agree on is that fewer people incarcerated makes for fewer traffic jams in the system. And further reforms in that part of the system are still needed.