A CBS News investigation has uncovered a massive backlog of court cases that has delayed progress on hundreds of thousands of criminal cases across the United States.
CBS News obtained and analyzed data from courts and district attorneys’ offices in more than a dozen major American cities and found “pending” criminal cases jumped from 383,879 in 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic, to 546,727 in 2021. In California, New York, Florida and Michigan, the number of “pending” cases in 2021 totaled nearly 1.3 million.
The backlog has resulted in delayed justice for crime victims and their families and threatens to deny the constitutional right to a speedy trial for the accused. It also raises concerns of a possible public safety threat, with thousands of convicted criminals remaining free as they await sentencing.
“We want justice for our son,” said Colette Grabow, whose 24-year-old son was killed in a hit-and-run crash in San Jose, California.
The suspect is accused of running a stop sign and hitting Barrett Grabow as he crossed an intersection on his way home from a party just before midnight on February 23, 2018. Prosecutors say the driver, who has a history of criminal convictions, sped away from the scene with a severely injured Grabow trapped halfway through the car’s windshield, before pulling over, dragging Grabow into the car through the broken glass and dumping his body on a sidewalk. Grabow died in the hospital several days later.
“When you lose a child, you miss him every day,” Jim Grabow said about his son, who was pursuing a law degree at the time of his death. “His younger brother just got engaged [and] Barrett won’t be his best man. And that just breaks my heart.”
The suspect in Barrett’s death eventually turned himself in to authorities and is charged with second-degree murder and vehicular manslaughter. But nearly five years later, no evidence has been presented to a jury. The trial has been postponed 20 times.
“This is absolutely a crisis,” said Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who is prosecuting the Grabow case. “There’s not accountability in our court system because cases are not moving, and we need to break through this kind of thinking and have an all-hands-on deck approach.”
Criminal attorneys and political leaders blame this delay, and others, on courts backlogs they say have paralyzed the pursuit of justice.
“The same sense of urgency that we have around COVID we need to have around this judicial emergency,” Rosen said.
It’s not just crime victims and their families who are coping with the impact of the backlog.
Sarina Borg was arrested in May 2020, accused of aiding and abetting a murder. She tells CBS News she spent two-and-a-half years in a San Francisco city jail cell, waiting for her case to be presented in court. When she finally appeared before a judge on November 7, 2022, the case was dismissed because of a lack of evidence.
“I felt like I was going to die in there,” said Borg. “I felt like I was never going to come home.”
“We knew if we could just get into a trial courtroom the truth would come out, the facts would come out,” said San Francisco Assistant Public Defender Alexandra Pray, who represented Borg. “We were just consistently denied the opportunity to prove her innocence.”
San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju says the struggle to catch up with cases that were postponed during the pandemic is only part of the problem. He says courts around the country are also coping with staffing shortages and the lack of adequate space to hold trials.
Raju urges court administrators — including judges — to take emergency action.
“Bring in retired judges, bring in whoever you can,” said Raju. “Other spaces need to be made available. We’ll use gymnasiums, we’ll use tennis courts!”
Raju sued San Francisco Superior Court in September 2021, claiming the court had violated the rights of hundreds of people by failing to hold jury trials within 60 days as required by law. In May 2022, an appeals court declined to issue an order forcing the San Francisco Superior Court to eliminate its backlog.
CBS News contacted the California Judicial Council, the policymaking body of the California courts, for comment on the ongoing backlog.
The Council declined an interview request, but a spokesperson wrote to CBS news in an email: “How courts process their cases is a local operational decision/issue that is outside the control of the Judicial Council. Addressing backlogs must happen in collaboration with local justice system partners, including district attorneys, public defenders, and local law enforcement.”
“We’re doing the best we can,” said Dallas County, Texas, Superior Court Judge Stephanie Huff, whose jurisdiction is also struggling with a major case backlog.
“The judiciary is an important part of the criminal justice system, but it’s one part,” said Huff. “You’ve got labs that are backlogged at this point. You’ve got the district attorney’s office that is backlogged in trying to get these cases presented to a grand jury and trying to get their cases in order for trial. The defense bar has a load of cases that they’re trying to deal with, and we’re still in the middle of people contracting COVID and not being able to appear in court.”
Having a multitude of court stakeholders, with no main overseeing body or authority to resolve systemwide backlogs, is an issue in other locations, including New York.
“We have an emergency,” New York Governor Kathy Hochul told CBS News. “This is an indictment on all of us as a society. The wheels of justice have spun to a halt.”
Hochul has introduced a two-year plan to increase the resolution rate for criminal cases throughout New York State.
“I said, ‘Get the district attorneys, get the judges, get the court personnel, put them in a room and [ask them to] put together a plan and we’ll execute it,'” the governor said. “I’m judging their success. How many cases will these judges dispose of in the next six months? I’m watching.”
With Hochul’s guidance, the New York Office of Court Administration is working with the Center for Court Innovation, a national nonprofit based in New York City that succeeded in reducing felony case backlogs during a 6-month pilot project in Brooklyn Superior Court in 2019.
That project set three goals to improve case processing: instituting formal timelines for court case milestones, establishing target adjournment lengths, and mandating case conferences between defense attorneys and prosecutors to improve communications. The pilot project produced an 11% increase in the number of cases resolved within the state’s 6-month time standard.
“What you have to do is bring all the players together and work it out and figure out what we can do,” said Courtney Bryan, director of the Center for Court Innovation. “At the end of [the pilot project], nobody loved every part of the plan, but everybody agreed that overall this was in their agency’s best interest, this was in their client’s best interest to pursue it.”
Governor Hochul says addressing the backlog is not just a matter of efficiency and fairness, but of public safety.
“It’s stunning,” Hochul said, noting that more than 8,000 people convicted of crimes in New York City were awaiting sentencing in October.
“That’s frightening to think about,” said Hochul. “It’s now a crisis on steroids.”