Backlogs and Violent Crime: City Talk


Alec McGillis is a reporter for ProPublica, covering politics and government. His work has appeared in the new yorker, Atlantic, New Yorkand the New York Timesamong other publications, and he is the author of Fulfillment: America in the Shadow of Amazon. He spoke to city ​​newspaper associate editor Daniel Kennelly on the effect of backlogs on violent crime rates.

In Atlantic and ProPublica, you recently explored the idea that the closing of courtrooms in the age of the pandemic could partly explain the surge in crime in 2020 and 2021. What is the causal mechanism there?

According to judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, violence prevention workers and criminologists I have spoken to, the causal mechanism has taken various forms. In some cases, the reduction in judicial operations could have led prosecutors not to prosecute certain perpetrators, who then committed another offence. In others, long delays before trials meant that victims and witnesses were less willing to testify or less able to recall events clearly. In still others, perpetrators did not receive the drug treatment or other services they would have received if their case had proceeded more normally, and this absence contributed to recidivism. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there has been the weakening of the widely accepted deterrent effect provided by the promise of “prompt and certain” consequences for breaking the law.

How can we assess the effects of this variable against the other causes you mention – changes in police behavior after the George Floyd protests, Covid-induced school closures, and other social disruptions?

You really can’t. I have been careful in my reporting on the resurgence of lethal violence in recent years to emphasize that it is the result of a confluence of factors. I wrote a in-depth narrative investigation last summer of the spike in homicides in Philadelphia, as a window into the broader national spike, and he showed how the causes you mention, along with several others – such as leadership changes at City Hall and the Department of progressive police and district attorney office reforms – all likely contributed to the resurgence. I mentioned the court closings only in passing, because Larry Krasner, the progressive Philadelphia district attorney, had cited them as a primary reason for the escalation in violence; my Atlantic article is an effort to take a closer look at this factor.

To what extent is the lack of criminal justice system capacity a pre-pandemic problem?

This problem absolutely predated the pandemic, more so in some places than others. Bernalillo County (Albuquerque), which I focused on in the Atlantic article, has struggled with court backlogs and processing delays for years. The current district attorney has focused on speeding up the system after taking office in 2017 and has made progress. Then came the pandemic and the New Mexico Supreme Court’s decision to restrict jury trials and other in-person court operations for many months, which significantly compounded the problem.

Are staff shortage in district attorneys’ offices also playing a role? And as a Baltimore resident, have you noticed that criminal justice capacity is contributing to the city’s recent crime spike?

Of course, and backlogs are compounding staffing shortages because there is now even more work to be done. In Albuquerque, prosecutors working on non-homicide cases each handle about 80 felony cases, up from about 50 before the pandemic. According to Baltimore Banner, the state’s attorney’s office now employs just 135 prosecutors, down from the 200 the office previously claimed, under the leadership of Marilyn Mosby, who recently lost her Democratic primary for re-election. Each homicide prosecutor in Baltimore now handles an average of more than two dozen cases each, which is more homicides than you’ll find in some entire cities.

What are the policy options to solve this problem?

Some cities, including Wichita, the other city I focused on in the Atlantic article, expanded their capacity by using some of their U.S. bailout money to bring back retired judges to handle an expanded role. As defense attorneys note, however, we must ensure that the push to expedite cases and reduce backlogs does not come at the expense of due process protections for defendants. One school of thought argues that the best way to reduce backlogs is not to process existing cases more quickly, but to present fewer cases first. This argument was made to me forcefully by the King County (Seattle) Chief Public Defender, who said that many property crimes and other offenses would be best dealt with outside of the court system. Of course, the rebuttal many would make, in Seattle and elsewhere, is that such diversionary efforts have contributed to the general disorder.

The most important approach, however, is probably best reserved for the future, to prevent this problem from happening again: justice systems should be more aware of the role they play as civic institutions at the heart justice and public order; and they should, in future crises, make every effort to maintain normal operations. In other words, they should follow Wichita’s lead, not Albuquerque’s.


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