How Will The Criminal Justice System Be Affected by the Coronavirus Crisis?


By Daniel Bush

One question many criminal defendants and their families have been asking over the past few weeks is “what is going to happen with my case?” While the question is fair, there is no clear answer.

The current environment everywhere — including in the criminal justice system — is as fluid and dynamic as any time in recent history. Rules which may have applied last week may no longer be in effect, and tomorrow’s rules may not be the same as those in place today.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s court system is a perfect example of this ever-changing landscape. Fortunately, Pennsylvania courts have established a framework to ensure that the current nationwide emergency does not push our society into a situation of complete lawlessness.

Like all entities in the Commonwealth, Pennsylvania courts have severely limited their functions. All trials have been discontinued. However, even in a state of emergency, it is simply not possible for courts to stop conducting business.

Thus, courts have not totally shut their doors. Individual counties will continue to have judges and staff available to handle matters where delay will cause significant harm. These cases are proceeding in an expedited manner, which will assure that those individuals most in need of a rapid resolution will get one.

One of the most pressing issues the courts are facing is what to do with people who are incarcerated. Those with lengthier jail sentences are generally unaffected, but those who were recently incarcerated for more minor offenses like probation violations or who were picked up on a warrant are required by law to be brought before a judge quickly. The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees each person a right to a speedy trial, and our laws more specifically define those time limits.

This fundamental right has not and cannot be suspended. Despite the need to minimize contact between individuals, certain business of courts must go on. The rights of those who previously were entitled to be brought before a judge in a speedy manner remain unaffected by the current pandemic.

Another consequence of the pandemic is that law enforcement officials are incarcerating fewer people, for several different reasons. This week the Pennsylvania State Police reported that crimes reported by their agency were down 89% from the week prior to the start of the pandemic. The Philadelphia Police Department recently stated in a press release saying that the Department will temporarily be suspending arrests of certain “non-violent offenders”, which quite frankly, led many to fear the beginning of lawlessness.

Instead of immediately arresting a person suspected of “certain non-violent offenses,” officers will detain these individuals, investigate the offense, take the person’s information and eventually file the court hearing paperwork. In reality, the police are not ignoring these crimes, they are merely delaying the start of court proceedings, thereby eliminating the need to immediately lock a person up. Nonetheless, Philadelphia police also have reported a massive reduction in arrests, similar to those rates of the state police.

Whether crime rates are actually so significantly down or the police are merely making less arrests remains to be seen, but the fact is that less arrests takes the pressure off the jails and the court system until things become somewhat more normal again.

In the end, our courts remain ready and able to provide necessary services to keep the criminal justice system functioning. While things certainly are not normal, the new normal is very capable of providing what is needed until this crisis passes.

If you have any questions regarding Pennsylvania courts, Lamb McErlane PC can help. Contact us at 610-430-8000.


Dan Bush is a criminal defense attorney at Lamb McErlane PC. Dan has over twenty years of experience prosecuting and defending individuals charged with a crime.

He chairs Lamb McErlane’s criminal litigation department and is a partner in the firm. 610-701-3266.




Connect With Your Community

Subscribe to stay informed!

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.