Utah has reached a tipping point. With jury trials on hold across most of the state and charges piling up on courtroom desks, many in jail are now facing a difficult choice—plead guilty and maybe go home or stay in jail for the foreseeable future.
Utah was not alone when its State Supreme Court decided to suspend jury trials in mid-May due to COVID-19. States from Kansas to Connecticut  rolled-out similar restrictions; all of them in effect until further notice. When we consider the fact that around two-thirds  of the total jail population is unable to post bail due to the cost, we realize that many in Utah now have a de facto endless jail sentence without ever having their day in court. Now, local officials such as Utah County Attorney David Leavitt are warning of “irreparable harm”  to the criminal justice system if jury trials do not return soon.
Before the pandemic, state criminal justice systems were already having difficulty delivering on the promise of equal justice under the law. It was not uncommon to find stories of people like Jerry Sanders , a Mississippi man who had spent over a year in jail waiting for his trial; a period of time longer than what he would have served in prison if convicted of his crime. The Constitution guarantees those accused of an offense to a “speedy trial”, and taking note of such, we should make every effort to uphold that promise rather than simply ignore it.
Putting aside concerns of justice, the cost of keeping people in jail before trial is another drawback of our currently flawed system. An estimated $13.6 billion  is spent every year by local governments to keep individuals behind bars while their cases move through the courts. It is true that some people certainly present a threat to public safety and should justly be confined, but we should re-examine exactly how we identify those individuals when the vast majority  of those sent to jail are not even classified as violent. Taxpayers stand to save millions of dollars if we realign our use of pretrial detention to accurately reflect public safety risks, savings which we need now more than ever as states across the country continue to struggle with massive budget shortfalls .
However, there are several local governments who have had success with criminal justice innovations that not only provide solutions to our current problems, but stand to provide benefits well into the future beyond the pandemic.
For instance, St. Louis County, Missouri  has reinvented itself when it comes to pretrial detention. Utilizing expertise from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the county government has implemented and expanded a screening program used to release low-risk individuals from pretrial detention.
Pima County  in Arizona is another shining example of successful experimentation at the local level. By restructuring the penalties associated with non-serious parole violations, county officials have moved away from the sole use of harsh penalties and toward a model that provides opportunities for parolees to become productive members of society.
While Utah’s legal logjam is unfortunate, it has revealed problems in the criminal justice system that may have gone unseen otherwise. In the short term, virtual jury trials like those on display in Texas  and Florida  could provide limited relief to those Utahns serving indefinite jail sentences. However, only long-term structural improvements and innovation can address the underlying problem of overcrowded jails. Like any other portion of American society, our legal system must adapt to the challenges at hand and strive to not only survive, but thrive in these difficult times.
- “Kansas to Connecticut”: https://public.tableau.com/profile/ncscviz#!/vizhome/StateCourtResponsestoCOVID-19/CovidTheCourts
- “two-thirds”: https://www.hamiltonproject.org/papers/the_economics_of_bail_and_pretrial_detention
- ““irreparable harm””: https://www.sltrib.com/news/2020/09/08/utah-still-delaying-jury/
- “Jerry Sanders”: https://apnews.com/8905678879034a04bb7bb911a09df001
- “$13.6 billion”: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2017/02/07/pretrial_cost/
- “vast majority”: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/graphs/pie2017_jail_detail.html
- “massive budget shortfalls”: https://www.cbpp.org/research/state-budget-and-tax/states-continue-to-face-large-shortfalls-due-to-covid-19-effects
- “St. Louis County, Missouri”: http://www.safetyandjusticechallenge.org/challenge-site/saint-louis-county/#:~:text=As%20with%20jurisdictions%20across%20the,Louis%20County.&text=With%20support%20from%20the%20Safety,years%20while%20maintaining%20public%20safety.
- “Pima County”: http://www.safetyandjusticechallenge.org/challenge-site/pima-county/#:~:text=%22Pima%20County%20Group%20Aims%20to,%E2%80%9C
- “Texas”: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/legal-issues/justice-by-zoom-frozen-video-a-cat--and-finally-a-verdict/2020/08/12/3e073c56-dbd3-11ea-8051-d5f887d73381_story.html
- “Florida”: https://www.nbcmiami.com/news/local/miami-dade-court-holds-states-first-virtual-jury-trial-amid-pandemic/2262205/