Courts move justice online

The old adage is justice delayed is justice denied, and in these unprecedented times, with a court system that can be slow-moving on its best days, the concern is genuine for defendants facing prolonged incarceration while awaiting trial. Jury trials are off indefinitely, which is an even more ominous term when you’re locked up in a prison system that many advocates consider a breeding ground for COVID-19.

“Our clients, particularly those who are incarcerated, are extremely concerned because unlike you and I, who can sit at home and social distance and can take all of these precautions to ensure that we do everything we can to protect ourselves from getting COVID-19, for many prisoners, when I speak to them, they say I feel like I’m just sitting here waiting to get it,” said Jennifer Sellitti, director of training and communications from the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender.

Sillitti says a system with a reputation for being resistant to change and progress has adopted to the use of technology quickly, making for not exactly optimum circumstances, but as close to functional as can be expected. Arraignments, status conferences, pleas and certain sentencing hearings are taking place using a variety of online platforms.

“Where the rubber is going to hit the road a little bit is in how we handle testimonial hearings moving forward, or trials and sentencings that are a little bit more substantial,” she said.

Hon. Glenn Grant says delays for trials and even some hearings have to be expected given mandates from the state intended to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“When we have a significant snow storm, when we had Hurricane Sandy, when we had Hurricane Irene, those cases were delayed based upon those emergencies. And what we do in those cases is we total the calculation for a speedy trial, for example, recognizing that we’re balancing the public safety issue here with the need to move those trials. So will there be somewhat of a delay? Absolutely,” said Grant, who serves as acting administrative director of New Jersey Courts.

Where the lawyers all agree on case dispositions, which is the vast majority of cases, trials are avoided and adjudication takes place. Grant says about 2% of cases actually go to trial.

“Is it taking place as quickly as we would like, no, because you have the dynamic of using Zoom, for example. When you talk about Zoom, we’re talking about, for example since early-March or mid-March, we have had probably six or seven thousand of these proceedings and tens of thousands of litigants participate in court proceedings since this crisis first began,” Grant said.

Extraordinary conditions in extraordinary times — and no one is really sure when things will be otherwise. One note of optimism: The judge and the Public Defender’s Office says that necessity could yet prove to be the mother of invention as the system hopes to find some efficiencies from what are now being seen as constraints.