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San Diego courts reduce trial backlog for misdemeanors, though felony cases grow

Just months ago, when it began to emerge from the pandemic-induced shutdown of nearly all court services, the San Diego Superior Court faced a daunting backlog of criminal cases scheduled for a trial.

The court has since sawed away at part of that backlog. But it still has to rely on emergency orders from the state that give more time to bring cases to trial.

First the backlog. In April, as the court began to more fully open by holding more in-person hearings and other services, the backlog stood at 721 felony trials and 5,776 misdemeanor trials, according to the San Diego District Attorney’s Office.

As of Nov. 12, the backlog stood at more than 950 felony trials and 1,750 misdemeanor trials.

The steep reduction in misdemeanors cases, which are less serious cases than felonies, is due to a combination of plea bargains, the use of diversion programs, and outright dismissals of cases, said Steve Walker the communications director for the district attorney.

The 31 percent increase in felony trials is still a daunting challenge. Since March of 2020, when the first pandemic restrictions went into place, the San Diego court has sought and been granted a series of emergency orders from Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

The orders relaxed fixed time deadlines for a variety of court matters, from hearing in child welfare cases to statutory deadlines for holding arraignments and trials.

Those orders were issued for nearly every court in the state, and while many courts no longer need the emergency help, San Diego is one of 10 courts that are still relying on emergency orders that extend the deadline for when a case must be brought to trial by 30 days.

Defendants can further extend that time deadline by agreeing to continue their cases, and nearly all do.

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