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St. Louis court backlog hits 1,900 cases

With jury trials at a standstill, detainees in the city's jail are waiting longer than usual for their day in court

ST. LOUIS — It’s been almost a year since jurors set foot inside St. Louis’ courthouse before COVID-19 kept them out.

That means some of the detainees at the city’s jail where a riot recently broke out have been waiting at least that long for their day in court.

Now, retired Judge Michael Wolff, who is the chairman of Mayor Lyda Krewson’s task force studying what led up to the revolt, said he wants to hear from the courts as well as ensure the task force’s work is open to the public.

In all, the 22nd Judicial Circuit is running about 1,900 cases behind on its docket — which is about 400 cases higher than its normal backlog, said Presiding Judge Michael Stelzer.

Despite the delay, he said the jail’s population is historically low and the backlog on the docket is “manageable.”

“We’re a high-jury-trial circuit,” he said. “We’re used to it.”

But the problem is jurors are being kept out of courthouses across the country to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The detainees on the fourth floor of the jail — where the riot broke out — are federal prisoners. And COVID has delayed their docket, too.

In 2019, there were 85 jury trials for felony cases in the city. In 2020, there were only 20.

“Some of them, had we not been in a COVID pandemic, would have probably already had their cases resolved,” Stezler said.

Stelzer said having jurors inside the courthouse also adds pressure to both prosecutors and defense attorneys to get cases moving along.

“It causes both sides to re-evaluate cases and that leads to some cases getting dismissed, some pleading out, some being decided by jurors, but without jurors inside the building, it suppresses all three of those options and that’s what’s going on right now,” he said.

There are also other options for detainees than jury trials.

They can have a judge decide their fate in a bench trial, or hope to strike a plea deal.

But Stelzer said the numbers show people are holding out for jury trials.

In 2019, pre-COVID, there were 16 bench trials on felonies.

In 2020, there were 13.

In 2019, about 1,100 cases resulted in guilty pleas.

In 2020, that number dropped to 438.

To keep the jail population low during the pandemic, Stelzer said judges are allowing higher numbers of people awaiting trials to wear ankle bracelets.

Right now, there are about 240, which Stelzer characterized as “significant.”

“That's a lot of people on GPS and certainly one or more of them could be doing things they're not supposed to be doing and if that comes to our attention, we can modify the conditions of bond or even revoke it,” he said.

And despite the backlog in the courts, Stelzer said the jail population is lower than it has been.

“Just a few years ago, the jail population was over 1,300 in the city and now it's under 800,” he said. “Even pre-COVID, it was over 1,000 and now it's under 800.

“So the number of folks we're dealing with has come down. Even before the pandemic, it was coming down.”

Of the jails 800 or so detainees, Stelzer said about 200 of them are being held on federal charges.

Another 360 are being held — typically without bail — for A-level felonies, which include homicide, assaults, shootings and other serious crimes.

About 100 are being held for B-level felonies, which include some sex crimes.