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Mass. Court Case Backlog Doubles During The Pandemic

East Boston District Court. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

With jury trials delayed until next year and courthouses across the state limiting in-person interactions, the backlog of cases in Massachusetts is skyrocketing, raising questions about a defendant's constitutional right to a speedy trial.

From April to November this year, the trial court’s pending caseload grew by almost twice as many cases compared to last year — reaching 103,469 cases. Criminal cases account for half of that backlog.

That's despite a steep drop in case filings, especially at the start of the pandemic. In May 2020, there was a 63% decline in the number of new cases compared to May 2019. Even in November, there were 32% fewer cases filed compared with the year before.

Criminal defense attorneys say those most affected are people who are in jail and waiting for their cases to be adjudicated. Although the state Supreme Judicial Court has said that those awaiting trial can seek release from incarceration because of the pandemic, that is not a guarantee.

"The people being held while awaiting trial find themselves in an unfair situation — they're citizens accused," said Boston defense attorney Peter Elikann, speaking for the Massachusetts Bar Association. "The courts have had to tap dance through a minefield almost, trying to balance the right to a speedy trial with trying to keep everybody safe."

The trial court has revised guidelines on courthouse operations several times since the spring. Initially, it planned to phase in most operations this fall, including jury trials. That has been pushed back until Jan. 11 at the earliest.

In the first phase, trials would be limited to six-person juries in certain courthouses. That would continue for two months before additional jury trials could resume. The trial court said it continues to look for locations to have jury trials in counties that do not have courthouses suitable for holding them during the pandemic.

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