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COVID’s Effects on the Federal Criminal Justice System

The number of Federal criminal sentencings were down more than 15%, from 76,538 in 2019 to 64,565 in 2020, due in large part to the COVID-related slowdowns in federal court proceedings and law enforcement agencies. Of the four largest categories of federal crimes, the prosecution of economic crimes such as fraud, theft, and embezzlement decreased the most, down 24.5% from 2019. Of the other major offenses, immigration prosecutions were down 9.5%; drug offenses, 17.3%; and firearms, 11.1%.

Conversely, the interplay of COVID and the First Step Act resulted in a 14% increase in the number of resentencings in 2020. Petitions directly to federal courts for “compassionate release” from federal custody accounted for 28.4% of these, followed by resentencing of crack cocaine offenses at 24.1%, and substantial assistance after sentencing at 17.1%. You can read more about the First Step Act here [link to ].

In the District of NJ certain criminal proceedings have resumed in-person, including grand jury proceedings, as well as first appearances, arraignments, plea hearings, and sentencings in which the defendant does not consent to conducting the proceeding remotely. In-person criminal jury trials are scheduled to resume beginning June 1, 2021, with the significant limitation of one trial per courthouse at a time. Priority will be given to single-defendant criminal cases which are expected to be completed within one week.

As the COVID crisis fades and federal courts resume in-person criminal proceedings including indictments and trials (see more here [link to ]), the courts expect to face a backlog of criminal prosecutions. Criminal defense attorneys should bear in mind the numbers of cases on the dockets as they formulate strategies and advise clients.

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