In this briefing, we examine how the criminal justice system is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the dangers it poses to the rights of the accused and how it could endanger their lives. The discussion examines how jurisdictions are managing changes to criminal court proceedings, the range of constitutional rights that are endangered, the heightened public health risk for individuals in pretrial detention, and how we can respond to these serious harms.
Some key takeaways include:
- The range of risks to constitutional rights is vast: Right to a speedy trial, access to attorneys, and due process are all threatened as the court system reacts to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Moving criminal proceedings to virtual settings presents serious and tangible harms: It threatens the ability to confer with attorneys, have public observers, quickly review documents, and have secure conversations.
- Many jurisdictions allow for shockingly long delays in formal charges and court proceedings after an individual is arrested and placed in jail—and some are even relying on a “state of emergency” to engage in indefinite detention without formal charging.
- Many problems we’re seeing are due to dysfunction that existed before the onset of the pandemic—the failure to reduce the pretrial detention population and an overstretched court system have caused problems for a while—and now those harms are amplified.