One such victim of the pandemic was the justice system. Because so many courts shut down, jury trials could not go forward. As a result, thousands of people across the country have experienced the effects of delayed justice for their claims, for their families, and for their freedoms. On top of it all, inmates have been waiting months for plea hearings and trials. Some, well past their sentences, are still sitting behind bars.
A recent story in the Washington Post profiled a man named Charles Ford, who is one of the thousands of people awaiting trial across the country. He had already been in jail in Virginia for a year when the pandemic struck the United States. Ford was denied probation sought by his attorney because of the pandemic because he was on probation for burglary and armed robbery.
After the motion for release was denied, Ford's trial was delayed because two jurors assigned to the case came down with symptoms of COVID-19. Ford then contracted the virus while in prison. He was finally acquitted of the felony charges in March 2021, and convicted of a misdemeanor instead. In what should have been a six-month sentence, Ford served a total of 22 months in prison.
“Almost four times the sentence is what he served,” Ford's trial attorney said. “And there's really no recourse.”
Long-term detention can lead to unfair plea bargains
Thousands of non-violent offenders were released to await their trials if they exercised their right to one. Those accused of violent crimes have been held indefinitely. D.C. Superior Court Judge Juliet McKenna said that there are “common sense reasons” why those who remain in jail have remained there. Those reasons include the violent nature of their crimes, the victims of their crimes, their criminal histories, and the seriousness of the charges.
While it is legal to deny bail to a violent offender, it is important to remember that in this country, you cannot simply keep people in jail or prison. Indefinitely holding the accused while denying them a right to that trial is not only unjust and illegal; it is almost a definite path toward a criminal record, even for the accused who are innocent of the crimes.
According to data collected by the Vera Institute of Justice, more than 90% of all criminal defendants take a plea bargain – about one every 2 seconds. The reasons for theses pleas are varied: they are tired of the process, they fear being imprisoned, they recognize a good deal when they get one, and so forth. For the accused who are sitting in detention centers that have been a hotbed of a deadly virus for the last year, accepting a plea for lesser charges that will get them out of jail may sound like a good bargain.
Unfortunately, it is not. A criminal record can keep you from accessing government assistance for housing or education, cost you your job or professional license, restrict you from owning a firearm, or keep you from voting. All of this, of course, is on top of the fines and fees that the courts will charge.
Patrice Sulton, director of the advocacy group DC Justice Lab said that prosecutors missed an opportunity to review whether or not convictions are the right avenue for people who have already served an ample amount of time in prison.
“Is it really worth the expenditure, the time, the jurors' time, to try the case just so the person will have the record of conviction?” Sulton asked.
Prosecutors have said that plea offers and charges are based solely on the facts presented in cases, not on extenuating or outside circumstances. Because of this, Sulton is pushing for judges to have more power in deciding whether to defer or dismiss cases.
When your right to a speedy trial is violated
Even though the sixth amendment to the United States Constitution grants Americans a right to a speedy and public trial, the criminal justice system came to a screeching halt when the pandemic hit. Many courts across the country instituted virtual hearings for pleas and other check-ins required by law, but jury trials were mostly postponed in every state and federal jurisdiction.
In order to prove that your right to a speedy trial was violated, the following four elements must be present in your case:
- The length of the delay
- The reason for the delay
- The request by the defendant for their right to a speedy trial (did he or she protest that there was a delay?)
- If the delay hurt the defendant's chances of having a fair trial
The second element, the reason for the delay, is what has many criminal defense attorneys fighting for their clients to be released without serving more than what they can be sentenced for in South Carolina.
However, a full court calendar cannot be used as a reason why a defendant should be released, especially when it is considered an uncontrollable event. Many court calendars are now backlogged because of the delay presented by the pandemic.
Have you been charged with a crime? Are you awaiting a plea hearing or a trial in South Carolina? The experienced criminal defense attorneys at Holland Law, LLC, can build a defense to those charges. Call our office at 803-219-2630 or complete the contact form on our website to schedule a consultation. We have offices in Fort Mill and Rock Hill where we serve clients from York, Chester, and Lancaster Counties.
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