KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Jackson County resumed jury trials this week after putting them on hold for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But one judge said the county likely will be playing catch up for the foreseeable future.
"Hopefully moving forward, and if the [COVID-19 case] numbers continue to do what we hope they will do as the vaccines continue to be rolled out and administered, we are hopeful we will be able to get back to business a little bit more,” presiding 16th District Judge Dale Youngs said. “It’s going to be a long haul though. I don’t think this is going to be an elephant that we’re going to be able to eat all at once."
That's because they're already starting behind.
In 2017, Jackson County tried 130 cases.
In 2018, 129.
In 2019, a year where the downtown courthouse was plagued with flooding problems, they still tried 112 jury cases.
But in 2020, they only managed to try 32.
Missouri doesn't have a state statute that gives a hard deadline for when a trial must take place. But defendants are still guaranteed a right to a speedy trial under the U.S. Constitution.
Youngs said he understands the frustration and concern from people involved in criminal and civil court proceedings.
“What we are trying to do is to move these cases forward not just to trial, but to a trial date," Youngs said.
The biggest challenge, he said, is bringing in larger crowds for jury selection.
Currently, 35 potential jurors are screened at a time so they can be spaced out in the courtroom to maintain social distance. Within the next two weeks, the 16th District hopes to start hearing four cases per week between the two courthouses.
The Independence Courthouse resumed operations this week, and the downtown Kansas City Courthouse is expected to do the same next week or the week after.
"We’ve gotten really good responses from jurors that we’ve polled after this first round of jury trials that we had,” Youngs said. “93% of those jurors polled felt safe.”
Jurors who have COVID-19 concerns can request a one-time postponement of their summons, although Youngs said not many have made that request.
As for the backlog, the county is only trying criminal jury cases right now, meaning civil cases will wait even longer.
Older criminal cases where defendants are in custody, along with those involving children, are top priorities.
In Kansas, the backlog of court cases led to a push for a temporary stay of a speedy trial statute in Kansas.