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Case Backlog, Jail Conditions Frustrate People in Philly’s Criminal Justice System

WHYY: Aaron Moselle - June 14, 2021

Post-pandemic life is on the horizon in Philadelphia.

On Friday, more than a year after the Department of Public Health recorded its first positive case of COVID-19, the city lifted its final two mitigation measures: the indoor mask mandate and the 11 p.m. last call for restaurants.

The move came roughly a week after the city removed all capacity limits and social distancing requirements for businesses and events.

However, the impact of virus-related restrictions is still being felt, especially when it comes to Philadelphia’s criminal justice system, which remains saddled with a significant backlog of open cases as city courts work toward fully reopening. Preliminary hearings and jury trials were put on hold for months.

The bottleneck, though less severe than it was during the first four months of the pandemic, continues to slow the wheels of justice for people locked up pre-trial in city jails, which are the subject of an ongoing federal class-action lawsuit filed over conditions.

More than 90% of people incarcerated on State Road have only been charged with crimes.

“This closing of the courts brought our justice system to an unprecedented grinding halt,” Acting Chief Defender Alan Tauber told a City Council committee during a budget hearing last month.

It’s unclear when the backlog, which currently eclipses 12,000 cases, will be erased. Tauber’s shop, which represents the majority of criminal defendants in the city, has an internal goal of clearing it by the end of the year. But that’s assuming arrest rates remain consistent, which could shift given the historic surge in shootings and homicides.

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