OROVILLE – Of the institutions that have been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent closures, the courts have been the hardest hit.
The Butte County Supreme Court system is dealing with 438 jury trials scheduled for the remainder of 2022, and approximately 12 of those trials are from murder cases.
Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said the court currently handles one to two cases a week.
“So arithmetic just doesn’t work to do all these cases in a reasonable amount of time,” Ramsey said. “Not this year, not this decade. Especially given that many of these cases are long-established cases that take more than a week to resolve.”
While those cases have been scheduled for jury trial, Butte County Superior Court CEO Sharif Elmallah said that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ready to go to court.
“There are a large number of cases that can potentially go to a jury, but the trial date is set much earlier in the process than is ready,” Elmallah said.
In many cases, a settlement is reached before the jury trial begins.
Elmallah said a total of 20,770 criminal cases were filed in fiscal 2020-2021. However, more than 13,000 were traffic violations, according to the Judiciary Council report. Crime cases accounted for 1,641, non-traffic offenses for 2,537 and traffic offenses for 2,460.
“It fluctuates from year to year in court records,” Elmallah said. “We as a court do not control that. We process the cases submitted to us.”
During the pandemic, government offices and departments have faced closures to the public and have been subject to strict guidelines to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The Butte County Superior Court was required to operate with a minimal staff and could only hear cases that were considered serious.
This significantly increased the workload of the assistant prosecutors. To make matters worse, Ramsey’s office has lost six assistant district attorneys from the usual 28 thanks to retirements and staff losses to other counties during the pandemic. The deficiency has had a direct impact on case reviews of arrested suspects. Ramsey said when assistant prosecutors are unable to review a case for charges, suspects are released from prison within 48 hours.
On average, a Butte County assistant district attorney has a caseload of 100. Post-pandemic, assistant district attorney’s offices have between 200 and 250 cases to juggle.
In addition to the possibility of suspects being released from prison before charges can be brought, victims and witnesses summoned by the court are feeling frustration at the delays.
“Victims and witnesses continued to be so frustrated that they told us to lose their addresses and phone numbers that they were done, which of course means these cases have to be dismissed,” Ramsey said. “There’s an old saying, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied.'”
Ramsey recently went before the Butte County board of directors to warn about the crisis and urge the federal agency to create better wage incentives to make the prosecutor’s office more attractive to outside attorneys looking for work. So far nothing has been approved.
Deputy prosecutors and judges have taken on additional work as the California state legislature has required the re-sentencing of some convicts. Ramsey said there are currently between 60 and 70 of those cases in Butte County.
The Enterprise-Record made several attempts to contact defense attorneys to comment on this story, but did not receive a response in time to meet the deadline.