Chief Judge on Criminal Case Backlog: ‘We Need More Judges’
Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette addressed this week the backlog of criminal cases facing Hennepin County courts.
“We need more judges,” said Barnette, chief judge of the Fourth Judicial District, speaking to the Plymouth City Council as part of an update tour to various cities in the county.
Barnette says the COVID-19 pandemic continues to create a backlog of criminal hearings. According to Barnette, about 7 percent of criminal cases from 2020 and another 12 to 15 percent from 2021 remain open. And that backlog has pushed back some of this year’s cases.
The Fourth Judicial District, which serves all of Hennepin County, has 63 judges, a number set by the state legislature.
While hiring more judges would help, Barnette says that’s just one spoke in the wheel of the criminal justice system.
“Additional judges help, and that’s great for us,” Barnette told council members. “But it’s also, we can only go so far with what we can offer based on what our justice partners can have in resources as well.”
Those partners include city and county attorneys, public defenders, as well as probation and psychiatric services.
The Fourth Judicial District handles about a third of all the state’s trial court cases. That number was 315,252 court case filings in 2021.
Chief Judge: Remote hearings increase court attendance
One positive to come from the pandemic is the increased use of remote hearings has helped improve court attendance. Hearings include civil, family, juvenile and probate cases, in addition to criminal matters.
Prior to April 2020, Hennepin County courts never did more than 50 remote hearings in a month. Now, the Fourth Judicial District holds 3,000 to 4,000 remote hearings a month, Barnette said.
“Remote hearings are here to stay,” said Barnette. “We’ve learned that providing remote hearings, people don’t have to take time off from work as much, or get daycare or come downtown and pay for parking, wait several hours for the court hearing to occur.”
The criminal division is the largest of five divisions in the Hennepin County District Court system. The other divisions are civil, family, juvenile and probate/mental health.
Criminal hearings aren’t the only type facing a backlog. Barnette says there’s is also a backlog of eviction cases due to the lifting of the pandemic eviction moratorium.
“Those are our biggest challenges right now,” he said.