Adjustments made in North Carolina’s legal system to help keep people out of courthouses and reduce jail populations during the COVID-19 pandemic may well show the way to changes that should be permanent instead of going back to doing things like they’ve always been done.
The “new normal” shouldn’t be returning to packed courtrooms and defendants waiting for hours to appear before a judge.
It shouldn’t mean continuing to criminalize poverty by putting people behind bars and in situations that are even more hopeless when they can’t pay ever-increasing court fees and fines.
Use of technology and administrative alternatives should open eyes to more efficient and more humane ways of meting out justice. More can be done – and be done faster - with electronic filing, the internet and video technology.
Procedural steps being taken to reduce the number of people in courthouses as court functions start returning to normal should be considered for long-term implementation.
New rules announced May 29 by Resident Superior Court Judge Michael Duncan of Wilkesboro to comply with Chief Justice Cheri Beasley’s directives are examples, especially those that simply require better communication.
Duncan said no case should be calendared for a specific court date unless there is a reasonable likelihood that it will be addressed. He emphasized that no case should be put on the court calendar if it’s not ready for disposition unless it’s a first appearance, bond motion, rejection of a plea on the record, advisement of right to an attorney or similar matter.
He said this requires defense attorneys and district attorneys communicating on cases needing to be placed on the calendar and those needing to be continued. Duncan said the district attorney’s office will prepare a schedule in Superior Court (and potentially also in District Court) for attorneys to appear during specific time slots.
He said the district attorney’s office must communicate with defense counsel with the goal of resolving cases in advance of court. When a plea offer hasn’t been made in a felony case at least 48 hours in advance of court, the defendant won’t have to appear for court unless the defendant hasn’t had a first appearance, needs to be advised of right to counsel, bond motions or similar matters.
The district attorney’s office must communicate with the jail to provide a list of inmates needed in advance of court, added Duncan.
He said defense attorneys must communicate with the district attorney’s office with a goal of resolving cases in advance of court sessions.
They also must make every effort to respond to the district attorney’s office inquiries/plea offers within a reasonable time before court. Defense attorneys must communicate plea offers with their clients in a timely fashion and go over plea transcripts with clients prior to their time slots in court, said Duncan.
He said communication between defense attorneys and the district attorney’s office is paramount if this process is going to work.
Finally, Duncan said any defense attorney or prosecutor not present at the allotted time slot to handle a case without just cause will be subject to being held in contempt of court.
Just as businesses are learning ways to increase efficiencies by having employees work from home, court officials are discovering what could change for the better in court operations.
More can and should be done to limit court dockets to cases that genuinely require going before a judge in a courtroom and to be more efficient in how those are handled.