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New York To Resume In-Person Jury Trials This Month, After Nearly A Year Of Virtual-Only

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After almost a year of virtual-only services, courts in New York are expected to begin in-person jury trials this month, again.

November briefly saw in-person hearings but was quickly moved back online because of a second wave of COVID-19 cases in the state. Advocates for people awaiting trial criticize a growing backlog in court cases.

New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore has praised courthouses across the state that implemented protocol to follow COVID-19 guidance to keep the criminal justice system running.

“Every individual arrested and held in custody since the beginning of the pandemic has been expeditiously arraigned by a judge,” DiFiore said during her annual state of judiciary address on Tuesday.

She said many of those arrangements were either held virtually at police headquarters or their proceedings were suspended.

Two weeks after giving her 2020 address, in front of a packed Appeals Hall in Albany, the state shut down as statewide coronavirus cases skyrocketed last spring. DiFiore said the move to virtual courtrooms has been challenging.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the courts have conferenced over 20,000 cases per week, seeking to settle cases when possible and conducting over 1,000 virtual bench trials each week. DiFiore said the courts have been able to arraign everyone that has been arrested since the beginning of the pandemic.

In November, New York restarted jury trials but quickly reversed the decision because of outbreaks — of which at least 60 positive cases came from Long Island courthouses: 31 from Nassau County and 29 from Suffolk County.

New York is preparing to bring back limited in-person criminal and civil jury cases on March 22 with coronavirus cases declining and COVID-19 vaccines becoming more available. New York City has over 49,000 pending criminal court cases.

“Our commitment to, and consistency in following the best safety practices and public health guidance paid off quickly and enabled us to resume some in-person proceedings,” DiFiore said.

Betsey Nevins, professor of clinical law and runs the Criminal Justice Clinic at Hofstra University, said she is hesitant to say in-person juries would be beneficial at this time.

“It is so important to get these jury trials going and at the same time they are also a public health risk that needs to be considered,” Nevins said. “I don’t think we’ll be on the other side of the public health crisis come [March 22].”

DiFiore said virtual hearings have created a digital divide for those that do not have access to high-speed WiFi. She said this became evident in the inequality seen in the court system through the arrests made over the summer during protests against the police killings of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor and other people of color.

In response, DiFiore said the court, with the help of faith leaders, set up initiatives that created public spaces that had access to WIFI and basic computer hardware to participate in the legal process.

Another possible solution is a consolidation proposal that would simplify the court system, DiFiore said.

She wants the claims court to be abolished, and those judges would become state Supreme Court Justices. A new court will also be created becoming a statewide Municipal Court that would take over for the New York City civil and criminal courts, as well as Long Island District Courts and 61 upstate city courts.

DiFiore said it would build on the principles of the Permanent Commission on Access to Justice, a group that helps the state court system adapt to unmet needs of New Yorkers, especially low-income residents access legal representation.

“For more than a decade now, we have been fortunate to have the Permanent Commission guiding our efforts to ensure meaningful access to justice for all New Yorkers,” she said, “and in this year of reduced funding for civil legal services, the Commission’s extraordinary work could not be more critical.”