The California criminal justice system changed dramatically during the pandemic. In a recent virtual presentation, PPIC researcher Heather Harris discussed findings from a new report on the effects of policies put in place by California courts during the initial stage of the pandemic, with a focus on remote hearings.
Arrest rates plummeted at the onset of the pandemic and stayed low throughout 2020, as Californians stayed home and police reduced interactions with the public. However, due to the public health threat, criminal courts resolved cases slowly—and a large backlog accumulated. The Judicial Council of California recognized the need to modify criminal court operations early on and adopted several policies in response to the pandemic: zero bail, extended case processing times, and remote hearings.
“No two counties had the same policy environment during 2020,” Harris said. The courts could institute a remote hearing policy, which allowed proceedings to take place virtually, but how and when counties implemented it varied. Some county courts defaulted to remote hearings. In other counties people had to opt in—that is, request to have their case heard remotely.
Whether a remote hearing policy was in place affected outcomes and equity at different stages of the criminal justice process. About half of all arrests in 2020 occurred when a remote hearing policy was in place. More than half of all arrests of Black and Latino people—but less than half of arrests of those of other races—were made under such policies.
Additionally, the rate of overall convictions fell under remote hearing policies—and there were differences by race. Black people saw the largest drop in misdemeanor convictions, while white people saw the largest drop in felony convictions.
Latino people were more likely—and Black people less likely—than white people to be convicted in 2020. Remote hearing policies account for a notable share of these racial differences; factors such as prior criminal history, current charges, and where charges were adjudicated also help to explain these differences.
Sentencing patterns also changed. Those convicted of misdemeanors tended to receive fines, probation, or restitution rather than jail time. Felony convictions led to jail instead of prison, especially for Black people.
Harris pointed to arraignments as fertile ground for research that could offer greater insight into the impact of remote hearings: “Most conviction outcomes are determined through plea bargaining. Fewer than 3% of criminal defendants in California see trial—but all of them appear to face charges [at arraignment].”
“Remote hearings do more than facilitate access to the courts,” Harris said. “They affect how courts treat people.” Before the pandemic, the California criminal justice system produced racially inequitable outcomes, and those outcomes shifted during the pandemic. “When those shifts happened, there were winners and losers.”
Legislation has allowed remote hearing policies to continue even as other pandemic policies ended. Harris urged policymakers to consider the wins and losses resulting from pandemic policies as they consider whether to continue remote hearings.