April 17, 2021 07:25

Philly Courts Stricken by COVID-19 Leave Defendants Jailed for Months

The backlog of cases in the Philadelphia criminal court system paralyzed by the pandemic now exceeds 13,000, according to the Defender Association of Philadelphia, reports the Philadelphia Enquirer. Ten months into the outbreak, the rule guaranteeing a speedy trial remains suspended. Last week, the Defender Association took the unusual step of petitioning the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to intervene. The filing sought release for six people who had been jailed more than 200 days without a preliminary hearing, at which prosecutors must show probable cause that a crime occurred.

Courtrooms where judges once heard more than 50 cases per day are now limited to a few per hour. Last fall, the president judge of Philadelphia’s Municipal Court, Patrick F. Dugan, instituted status calls before preliminary hearings to ensure that all sides would be ready. But of 4,300 hearings scheduled that way, 61 percent were still delayed. Dugan said the Room 200 list reflected another attempt to expedite cases. Judges throughout the fall sent cases to that room as a placeholder, hoping COVID rates might “take a turn in the right direction” and allow judges to reschedule those cases promptly. The city’s rising case count, and an outbreak in the city jails, dashed that hope. On Dec. 5, the jails locked down for a month and stopped transporting defendants to court. The jail population, now at 4,500, has crept up toward pre-pandemic levels, even as community groups spent more than $5 million to bail out around 700 people in the past year.

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