As the COVID-19 crisis continues, we are already seeing its direct impact on the criminal justice system. Courts across the country are shutting down for non-emergency cases, fewer arrests are being made, and many defendants have been released early from their sentences. The question is: what will the long-term impact of this pandemic be on the criminal justice system?
First, we will likely see a new and more robust approach to the use of technology to improve the court system in Virginia and across the country. We don’t have the luxury of doing business by paper and in person right now, which is forcing us to innovate quickly to develop effective methods for electronic filing of court documents and for virtual court proceedings. Many courts in Northern Virginia are already leading the pack in this regard and have e-filing options as well as advanced courtroom technology. But the COVID-19 pandemic will likely force Virginia to move towards a more uniform approach to courtroom technology that will allow electronic filing across the board, in addition to enabling courts to hold virtual hearings.
Second, as a result of the fear of crowded jails becoming hotbeds of infection, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys across the country have worked on releasing non-violent offenders from jails, in addition to granting bond to defendants who may have otherwise been held without bond. Within a matter of a couple weeks, the number of inmates in county and city jails has decreased substantially. The impact of these releases remains to be seen, but if things go well, the question will become whether the criminal justice system will use this as a springboard for broader reform aimed at reducing overall incarceration and relying more often on alternatives to incarceration. Only time will tell.