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In Many Places, The Coronavirus Is Putting The Criminal Justice System On Hold

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The coronavirus has put justice on hold in states across the country, and the criminal justice system is having to adapt. It's meant delayed trials, the release of some low-level offenders from jail and fewer arrests. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: What to do with a jury summons during a pandemic, especially if you think it's both an honor and a duty to serve?

EDWARD LIFSON: To be honest, I would not do it right now. If they told me I had to come, I would say no.

CORLEY: That's Edward Lifson (ph), who was scheduled for jury duty in Los Angeles this week. No worries, though - civil and criminal trials in California are on hold now for at least two months. Mike Buenger with the National Center for State Courts says in some, trials already underway will continue but no schedule for new ones. Buenger says there will still be some in-person court action.

MIKE BUENGER: So for example, people still need temporary restraining orders or civil protection orders for domestic violence. We still have children who are in at-risk environments, and so there may be need for child protective orders.

CORLEY: In Chicago, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx says any given day, there are typically hundreds of cases in the court system with dozens of jury trials. Most criminal and civil cases have been suspended until the middle of next month. Foxx calls it an unprecedented 30-day slowdown. She says the primary focus is on cases where people already in custody may want to plea bargain.

KIM FOXX: Our No. 1 concern is recognizing that people who are at the Cook County Jail are at a heightened risk for the virus because of their close containment.

CORLEY: So there's been a scramble in states to release nonviolent detainees. New Jersey takes an unprecedented step today. People still awaiting trial will remain in jail. It will start releasing all the others who've been convicted and serving time in all the county jails across the state. ACLU attorney Alexander Shalom says that will mean freedom for about 1,000 individuals.

ALEXANDER SHALOM: It's not a get out of jail free card, in a sense. It doesn't commute people's sentences necessarily. What it does is it says, we're going to let you out now in this time of crisis.

CORLEY: Once the crisis is over, it's either back to jail or a sentence could be commuted. Police departments across the country are doing their part by holding back arrests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIELLE OUTLAW: The department is not turning a blind eye to crime.

CORLEY: Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said last week the department will make arrests for nonviolent crimes. However, once a person's identity is confirmed, they'll be released and handed a warrant telling them to come in later.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OUTLAW: No one will escape accountability for the crimes that they commit.

CORLEY: In Los Angeles, Craig Lally, the head of the police union, says instead of arrests for nonviolent misdemeanors like shoplifting, officers are writing release from custody citations.

CRAIG LALLY: It's almost like a ticket. When you sign for the ticket, you're not admitting guilt. You're deciding that you will go to court.

CORLEY: He says it helps keep people potentially infected with coronavirus out of police stations and jails. Police continue to arrest anyone who commits a serious crime. Duffie Stone, the head of the National District Attorneys Association, says with all the changes taking place, officials in the criminal justice system should be careful so there's no trading of one risk for another.

DUFFIE STONE: I don't want us to let a bunch of criminals out of jail, whether they are on plea deals or whether they are on bond reductions because we are trying to fight a pandemic.

CORLEY: Whatever the perspectives, the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing the criminal justice system to find new ways to balance justice with public safety.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BUDOS BAND'S "GHOST TALK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.