Philadelphia prisoners kept from court, causing thousands of backlogged cases

COVID-19 is one reason why more than 2,200 cases have been delayed the last two months

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — It’s an issue that started during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s getting worse.

Backlogged court cases are steadily accruing because defendants are not being brought from jail to court.

It’s causing frustrations for everyone including lawyers, judges, and the defendants who have been waiting months in jail for a preliminary hearing.

Tom Innes, chief of prison advocacy for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said their goal is to ensure that defendants get their constitutional right to a speedy trial.

He said that hasn’t been the case lately for thousands of people behind bars awaiting court hearings.

"Since December 1, there have been a total of 2,230 people who were not brought down, 2,230 people who did not make it even though there was a court order to bring them to court," said Innes. "They did not come down for one reason, that's because they were on medical hold."

He said if an inmate on a cell block tests positive for COVID-19, the whole unit of up to 100 people is quarantined, regardless of vaccination status or if they’re asymptomatic.

"What that means is that all those people, if you have a date in court today and you're on a quarantine block, you're not coming down," said Innes.

"You're not coming down for anything, for a bail reduction motion, for a preliminary hearing. For a trial, you're just not going today."

Innes said that on just one day alone last week, more than 100 people were canceled from the bring-down list for court. They have clients that have been waiting months for a preliminary hearing. He said that is not only problematic for the defendants.

"It's also for people who are victims of crimes," said Innes.

"They're not getting their first chance to see and to hear what's going on. The families of the incarcerated person is not going to be able to do that either."

The Philadelphia Sheriff's Office said they are not part of the issue. A spokesperson wrote in part, "The Office of the Sheriff is working diligently to transport prisoners to court. There are significant limitations due to the COVID-19 pandemic."

A spokesperson from the Department of Prisons said in part that they can rapid-test people scheduled for court, but the Sheriff’s Office is responsible for their transportation and admission.

You can read the full Department of Prisons statement below.

"The Philadelphia Department of Prisons continues to follow the evolving CDC guidelines. If there is an incarcerated individual on a housing unit that tests positive for COVID, that individual is immediately transferred to isolation. The remaining individuals on that housing unit, out of an abundance of caution and following CDC guidelines, are then placed in quarantine. They are monitored for symptoms, and serial testing is conducted until there are no further positive tests on that housing unit.

"To be clear, it does not mean that every individual on that housing unit is positive for COVID-19, we implement an overall quarantine out of an abundance of caution. If an individual is scheduled for court, we have the ability to test that individual through a rapid test and if the results are negative they would be made available for court. Any transport or admission to court is under the purview of the Sheriff’s Department and the First Judicial District."

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