CSAC Bulletin Article

PPIC Report: Pandemic Policymaking and Changed Outcomes in Criminal Courts 

April 20, 2023

The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) recently released a report, Pandemic Policymaking and Changed Outcomes in Criminal Courts, which chronicles how the COVID-19 pandemic affected courts in 2020, describes policy responses, and assesses the impact of remote hearing policies on conviction and sentencing outcomes within six months of arrest. 

Key takeaways from the report include: 

Pandemic conditions challenged the courts’ capacity to resolve cases. For example, an estimated 55,000 criminal cases that would have been completed within six months remained unresolved at the end of 2020. 

To adapt to pandemic conditions, courts acted swiftly by utilizing three main strategies including modifying pretrial release to reduce jail populations, permitting remote hearings, and extending case timelines. 

Uneven adoption of policies, paired with geographic differences in where people live, meant that Black and Latino defendants had greater potential than individuals of other races to experience pandemic policies. 

Remote hearing policies reinforced pandemic trends for lower conviction rates, but counteracted trends in sentencing. When remote hearing policies were in place, rates of conviction within six months of arrest fell, with outcomes for white, Latino, and Black individuals driving this result. Misdemeanor convictions were less likely to lead to incarceration in local detention facilities and more likely to receive noncustodial sentences such as probation and monetary sanctions, mainly for white, Latino, and Black individuals. Felony convictions were less likely to result in incarceration in state detention facilities and more likely to lead to incarceration in local detention facilities, and outcomes for Black individuals dominated this result. 

Remote hearing policies contributed to racial differences in criminal case outcomes. Inequity in conviction and detention facility sentence rates narrowed between white and Latino defendants and between white and Black defendants. By contrast, racial inequity widened in the likelihood of being sentenced to monetary sanctions and probation. 

Debatably, whether a criminal proceeding is conducted virtually or in person should not influence whether a person is convicted or how they are sentenced; yet according to the PPIC report, remote hearing policies have affected both. The report can be read in its entirety here

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