Waiting For Justice: Defendants Locked Up For Years Awaiting Trials, Sentencing
By Robert Lewis | CalMatters
This investigation is republished with the permission of our friends at the Sacramento-based nonpartisan, nonprofit newsroom CalMatters.
DeAndre Davis has been waiting 651 days in a Sacramento County jail. Charged with the murder of a 21-year-old man shot during a robbery in 2019, he hasn't been tried and he hasn't been sentenced — and he hasn't even had a preliminary hearing to decide if there's enough evidence to take him to trial.
For Davis, it's been an agonizing ordeal made worse by the pandemic. Held without bail because of the severity of the charges, he's locked down as much as 23 hours a day inside a concrete box as his life outside is crumbling. From his cell, he went through a divorce and lost custody of his 10-year-old daughter, he said.
"I've lost so much of my life in here, fighting this case," said Davis, 37, speaking during a collect call from the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove. "I don't want to sit in here another year or two."
Nearly two years of waiting is a different kind of torture for Jennifer Maraston. She's the mother of Jaquan Wyatt, the man Davis is accused of killing at a Sacramento apartment complex.
"There's not a day that goes by where I don't get up and think about my son," Maraston said.
"Emotionally it takes a toll — the not knowing. I don't want the case to get to the back of people's minds. I don't want people to forget this is still going on."
But justice for Davis and Maraston is many more months, if not years, away.
Davis is one of thousands of men and women throughout California who are stuck for years in county jails without being convicted of any crime. A CalMatters investigation has revealed that at least 1,300 people have been incarcerated in California's jails longer than three years without being tried or sentenced.
Of those, 332 people have been waiting in jail for longer than five years, according to CalMatters' analysis. And one man in Fresno County has been jailed awaiting trial in a double-murder case for nearly 12 years — 4,269 days since his arrest.
The reasons for the long delays are myriad: Defense attorneys seek extra time to prepare, prosecutors pursue stiff sentences that lead to extra hearings, and judges struggle to manage their crowded calendars.
The result is a troubling backlog of cases that existed even before the pandemic. Now COVID-19 has pushed the problem to a crisis point. Shuttered courtrooms have delayed hearings, and state emergency orders have allowed judges to waive speedy trial rights and keep pushing back trial dates — all leading to even more time behind bars for people who have been charged but not convicted of a crime.
"The wheels of justice turn very slowly," said Mariam El-menshawi, director of the California Victims of Crime Resource Center and adjunct professor at the McGeorge School of Law. "With COVID, it's slowed down the process even more."
These are men and women for whom the notion of "presumed innocent" has been turned on its head. They — along with the victims of crimes awaiting justice — are the human toll of a California judicial system that struggles to dispose of cases in a timely manner.
Most of the defendants held in jail before their trials are Black and Latino, based on the 21 counties where demographic data was available. In San Francisco, for instance, where 5% of the population is Black, half of the unsentenced inmates jailed for longer than a year are Black, including 25 who have been jailed longer than five years, according to sheriff's department data.
Many low-income people are incarcerated for years before they are convicted because they can't pay bail. Last week, the California Supreme Court ruled that people can't be held in jail before trial solely because they can't afford to get out. But there appears to be no immediate impact; judges will have to rule in those cases, and they still can consider public safety before releasing detainees.
The longest delays are for people charged with felonies, which range from burglary to sexual assault to murder. If people are ultimately convicted, the time they serve before trial counts toward their sentences. But some eventually will be acquitted or have charges dropped; others will take plea deals to get out.
California's Judicial Council guidelines recommend that felony cases generally wrap up within 12 months. Yet even before the pandemic, the state's courts closed only about three-quarters of felony cases in that timeframe, according to the Judicial Council's most recent annual report.
But many of the courts are incapable of accurately reporting the data, so that percentage could actually be better or worse. It's a troubling situation: The state Judicial Council doesn't know how severe the delays are in its trial courts, calling into question how it can provide even basic oversight of a system that encompasses hundreds of thousands of Californians a year.
A SNAPSHOT OF SLUGGISH JUSTICE
CalMatters sought records from all 58 county sheriff's departments. Thirty-three provided the records, which listed about 5,800 people who have been behind bars for longer than a year without being sentenced for a crime. For 22 counties that wouldn't provide records, CalMatters scraped online inmate locators and court dockets, uncovering another 2,800 inmates held for longer than a year. (Some could be serving sentences in jail or waiting for a prison transfer.) Three — Ventura, Tuolumne and Trinity — didn't respond to the records request and don't have online jail rosters.
The records offer an unprecedented glimpse into the impact of California's sluggish justice system. Most counties have inmates who have been stuck in jail for years without a trial.
In Riverside County, for instance, 121 people have been locked up longer than three years without being convicted or sentenced, while 33 have been jailed longer than five years, according to records from the county's sheriff's department. About 650 of nearly 1,900 inmates with open cases have been held longer than a year.
In Contra Costa County, 38 unsentenced people have been behind bars longer than three years, including nine waiting in jail longer than five years.
In Los Angeles County, which has the state's largest jail population, 1,350 unsentenced people have been waiting longer than a year, and about 180 have been there longer than three years, according to the sheriff's department data.
"If the case is still provable, then move it forward aggressively. And if it's not for any reason, then we should reevaluate our settlement position or consider dismissal," said San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who tried to tackle a backlog of older cases when he took office.
"There are some cases where after three, four, five years, we simply don't have the evidence to prove the case. And the sooner we identify those cases, the more efficient we can be with our limited resources focused on cases that we can prove."
Delays carry more than just an emotional cost for victims and defendants.
"There is a dollar cost to this issue too," said Sagar Bajpai, a student at UCLA Law School who co-authored a recent report that found that detainees are spending more time behind bars pretrial in Los Angeles County during the pandemic.
Los Angeles County spends about $43,000 to house an inmate in jail for a year, according to the report. There's also a cost for courts; one decade-old study found if the courts granted one fewer continuance in every felony case, it would have saved about $60 million a year.
Not all inmates will ultimately be convicted after their long stints in jail.
In August 2016, Victor Jimenez, 41, was charged in Los Angeles County Superior Court with illegally possessing a firearm and drugs for sale. He said he refused a deal to serve six years, preferring to go to trial because, he said, he didn't do it. But the case dragged on for months. "It's pretty tough, man," Jimenez said.
A jury acquitted him, and he walked out of the courthouse a free man in January, 2018 — after serving 503 days in jail.