COVID created a court backlog, delays in justice system. Omicron is making it worse.

Courts put cases on hold at the start of the pandemic and have been playing catch-up ever since
Published: Jan. 27, 2022 at 5:17 PM CST
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BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - While pretty much everyone has a story of how COVID has delayed their work, a family event or just daily life, it’s also having a ripple effect on our justice system.

When the pandemic started in 2020, a lot of cases were put on hold. The courts have been playing catch-up ever since.

But the recent surge of Omicron has created a whole new round of complications and delays.

It was evident in a January hearing in a Brown County courtroom when the defendant didn’t show up for court and his attorney didn’t know where his client was.

The clerk can be heard saying, “We have information from the prison that he is in quarantine.”

Brown County Judge Tim Hinkfuss then addressed the court during the Zoom hearing, saying, “Okay, that was the clerk, and she indicated Mr. Herrera-Hernandez is in quarantine because of COVID, so we’ll have to reschedule this.”

That proceeding could probably be repeated in just about any court in the state right now.

“Literally every week, something is being impacted by COVID,” says Brown County District Attorney Dave Lasee.

The impact of delays is probably felt most in the district attorney’s office. Lasee says it’s nearly become a full-time job, on top of prosecuting cases, just trying to juggle the ones being delayed.

But many times it’s happening at the 11th hour, creating even more challenges.

“We’re trying to go ahead,” says Lasee. “The issue has been that we’ve had so many different cases adjourned on the morning of trial or adjourned two days before trial because COVID has popped up.”

And with the recent spike in cases from such a contagious variant of COVID, getting a jury trial to happen in person is extremely challenging.

“It’s difficult to imagine you would have a case with 20 or 30 witnesses, and have 14 jurors, and defense counsel on one side, the defendant, and have no one have an issue with COVID,” describes Lasee.

With each delay comes the challenge of finding time to put the case on the calendar at another time.

But it has to be done in addition to dozens of other trials that have been delayed since the pandemic started plus the normal new caseload.

“The impact of that is that you’re spending a lot of time spinning your wheels. You’re spending a lot of time preparing for cases that end up not going to jury trial, so that’s impacted the workload in our office. It’s also impacted us from a budgetary standpoint,” says Lasee.

He says the DA’s office blew through last year’s budget for things like witness subpoenas and fees, expert witness travel and other trial prep.

And 2022 isn’t starting out any better.

But beyond the scheduling and financial impacts, the defendant’s right to a speedy and fair trial must also be considered.

“The statutory speedy trial right... one of the ways to alleviate that is to modify to a signature bond and release a defendant from custody. Obviously on the significantly violent cases, the court can work around that, and we do try to prioritize those cases so they’re not being bumped for inappropriate reasons, but certainly that has a potential to exist,” says Lasee.

COVID impacts juries as well, according to the D.A.’s office.

Not only are there cases where a juror gets sick, but sometimes they are suddenly unavailable if they have to stay home to care for a child or other family member in quarantine.

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