Whatever happened to a speedy trial? | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Justice delayed

Defendants languish in overcrowded jails while they wait for their day in court

Illustration by Anagh Banerjee

Justice delayed
You have {{ remainingArticles }} free {{ counterWords }} remaining. You've read all of your free articles.

Full access isn’t far.

We can’t release more of our sound journalism without a subscription, but we can make it easy for you to come aboard.

Get started for as low as $3.99 per month.

Current WORLD subscribers can log in to access content. Just go to "SIGN IN" at the top right.


Already a member? Sign in.

TWICE A MONTH, CAMILLE CRAFT MADE HER WAY TO THE DeKalb County Jail, a blocky eight-story fortress 30 minutes outside Atlanta. Inside, everything felt strange and hostile—from the gray stone walls staining the narrow windows with their weeping, to the clock never set to the right time. She describes it now as dystopian, “almost like something out of 1984.”

During each visit, Craft filed through security in the high-ceilinged atrium before making her way down a flight of stairs and through a narrow hallway. Along the way, she passed the deserted visitors’ room where family members used to see their incarcerated loved ones. That was before the pandemic.

Craft never sat in the visitors’ room, even though she made biweekly trips to see her 21-year-old son, Daniel. Daniel was confined to the DeKalb County Jail in May 2021 when he got mixed up in a violent incident that left another man dead. Daniel didn’t pull the trigger—but was at the scene of the crime and faces a charge for criminal attempt to commit a felony.

Two years later, he still hadn’t been convicted of anything and didn’t even have a trial date on the horizon. Craft described it as being in a kind of “suspended animation.” But Daniel’s plight wasn’t unusual. Many of those locked up alongside him had already waited three or four years for their day in court.

According to the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report, 70 percent of those held in U.S. jails are not yet convicted. These inmates are legally innocent until proven guilty and have the constitutional right to a speedy trial. But court backlogs in some regions—the result of overtaxed systems hampered by pandemic-era shutdowns—are keeping people trapped for years pretrial. Often, the conditions they wait in are dirty, cramped, and dangerous.

Visitors still aren’t allowed back in the DeKalb County Jail. Craft got a pass because she’s a lawyer. Inside the attorney’s room, the glass was so thick she couldn’t hear Daniel without the aid of an old phone under the desk. Sometimes, the heavy metal slot for exchanging official paperwork was open. When it was, she could reach through to hold her son’s fingers. Otherwise, she pressed her hand against his on the glass between them. Always, she prayed for him, crying quietly.

We are entitled to a speedy trial. That’s a joke. There’s no such thing as a speedy trial.

At first, Craft didn’t know how much her son might be exaggerating about conditions at the jail. He often referred to the food as “rat meat,” for example. But she quickly started noticing things that deeply troubled her.

When Daniel first arrived, staff members didn’t allow inmates outside. They also stopped in-person visits due to staffing shortages and the raging COVID-19 pandemic. Although the facility had a part-time chaplain, inmates couldn’t access religious programming.

The court-appointed attorney for Craft’s son told her he thought the quality of life was actually better in prison than in jail. “At least in prison, you can go outside,” Craft said. “They have some educational programs.”

But jails aren’t typically set up to house people long-term: “In jail, there’s literally nothing.”

Neither the DeKalb County chaplain nor the sheriff’s office responded to my interview requests.

Craft wrote about her concerns to numerous government officials, including the governor, her state representative, her U.S. senator, and the attorney general of Georgia. She also talked on the phone with the former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. She doesn’t recall his exact words, but the conversation ran along these lines: Everybody knows that this is a big problem. But nobody knows what to do about it.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

JAIL POPULATIONS plummeted 25 percent in the first six months of 2020 as courts implemented more lenient policies to mitigate overcrowding. But numbers soon started creeping back up again, growing almost 16 percent from June 2020 to June 2021. They increased another 4 percent in 2022.

Even during the pandemic low, reports the Prison Policy Initiative, an advocacy group, local jails held a larger share of unconvicted people than ever. The U.S. lockup rate was more than double what it was in 1980.

Kate Trammell is vice president of advocacy at Prison Fellowship. Before that, she served as a magistrate for the Supreme Court of Virginia. Trammell said the reasons behind court backlogs vary between jurisdictions. But they tend to fall into one of three categories: problems with staffing, scheduling, or funding. Defendants can have trouble getting spots on packed court calendars, and cuts to public defense funding mean there aren’t always enough lawyers to go around.

While their cases stall, many people end up waiting in jail. Often, this emphasis on pretrial detention is driven by legitimate public safety concerns. According to government statistics, 44 percent of prisoners convicted of a violent crime were arrested again for a violent crime within 10 years of their release. Recidivism rates for those released from jail while awaiting trial are harder to pin down. But public safety advocates argue they are similarly high.

Protecting communities from people likely to ­reoffend is one of two legitimate reasons for locking someone up pretrial, Trammell said. The other is ­stopping people deemed likely to flee.

Nationwide, only about 30 percent of people waiting in local jails pretrial are held for violent crimes. Most of the others face charges for property, drug, and public order offenses. All too often, people detained for nonviolent offenses simply can’t afford to pay bail. According to a 2022 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, over 60 percent of defendants detained pre-trial can’t afford to post bail.

Cynthia Thomas witnessed that firsthand during her time working in the Sybil Brand Institute, a women’s jail in East Los Angeles. The year was 1969, and her local sheriff had just started recruiting women. Thomas was just 20 years old when she got accepted into the police academy. Her uniform was “very Nancy Drew” —a long skirt, 2-inch black heels, and a white blouse with her badge pinned on.

Thomas didn’t know it then, but she was entering the scene at a historical turning point for U.S. corrections. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in the face of rising crime rates and overdose deaths. Over the next 50 years, jail and prison populations exploded as courts applied more tough-on-crime policies.

Between 1970 and 2022, the U.S. jail population alone grew fivefold—from about 130,000 to over 660,000. The prison population swelled to over 1.2 million.

Back in the ’70s, Thomas said, conditions in the jail she worked at were “horrendous”—the facility was old and overcrowded with long wait times for trial. But she didn’t really question the status quo back then.

Her perspective shifted decades later when her grandson got arrested and sent to the Santa Ana City Jail in 2016. He was just 20 years old. “Seeing him in jail and seeing that nothing had changed was devastating,” Thomas said.

The family couldn’t afford an expensive attorney, so they started a GoFundMe page to help cover the cost. They ended up hiring a lawyer one of them met at a veterans’ event. His upfront hiring charge was $10,000.

Unfortunately, he had a secret drug problem and wound up suspended and eventually disbarred. But not before he took $15,000 from Thomas’ family. After that, the court assigned her grandson a public defender. In the meantime, his court hearings were repeatedly postponed.

“We are entitled to a speedy trial,” Thomas said. “That’s a joke. There’s no such thing as a speedy trial.”

You’re just wasting someone’s life. And they haven’t been convicted of anything.

LAUREN BROWN has worked as a defense attorney in Georgia since 2012. He spent most of that time as a public defender in DeKalb County before switching to private practice in 2020. These days, he visits dozens of courthouses each year.

Brown said there’s no “one size fits all” situation when it comes to jails, because each one is managed locally. Georgia alone has 159 counties, and Brown said most of them have their own detention centers. They vary widely in size from small-scale operations to sprawling complexes that are “almost like their own ­little cities.”

But Brown said the issue of long-term detention is a pervasive problem plaguing many different facilities across the country. Although the average jail stay nationally still hovers around 30 days, turnover rates and conditions vary widely among the nation’s more than 3,000 locally managed facilities. But Brown said conditions are especially bad in large metropolitan areas like Gwinnett, DeKalb, and Fulton counties.

Last year, 10 inmates died in Fulton County Jail. Although half of these deaths resulted from underlying conditions, they raise questions about official neglect in the severely understaffed facility. On Aug. 26, Samuel Lawrence was strangled four days after filing a petition detailing excessive force from officers and attacks from other inmates. The Department of Justice opened an investigation into the jail after an independent autopsy found inmate Lashawn Thompson died from “severe neglect.”

“These facilities are not designed for long-term—whether that be for healthcare, for mental healthcare, for hygiene, for even a productive use of one’s time. They’re not created to hold people for years at a time,” Brown said. “And so the amount of issues and problems that creates for a person stuck in a county jail are—they’re vast.”

Brown has seen resources like GED programs, technical training, and counseling vanish from jails over the past decade. He said most facilities just cover the basics: meals, medicine, and court transportation. “Other than that, they’re letting people just waste away,” Brown said. “And it’s one thing if somebody’s spending the weekend in jail. It’s another thing for somebody to spend years in jail.”

In July, a mistrial sent defendant Maurice Jimmerson back to jail in Albany, Ga., after he had waited 10 years for his day in court. Jimmerson’s co-­defendant spent seven years in jail before a jury found him not guilty of 26 charges.

And in early November, one of Brown’s clients pleaded guilty to five felonies after having his bond requests repeatedly denied. The man had been in jail for three years. “You’re just wasting someone’s life,” Brown said. “And they haven’t been convicted of anything.”

That’s exactly what happened to Thomas’ grandson in the Santa Ana City Jail. “Every time we went to court, it was postponed, postponed, postponed, postponed—for six years,” Thomas said.

Deputies put an inmate in a cell in the Dane County Jail in Madison, Wis.

Deputies put an inmate in a cell in the Dane County Jail in Madison, Wis. Morry Gash/AP

In the meantime, he had hardly anything to keep his mind busy in jail—except reading. Thomas said her grandson has some learning disabilities and had never read much before: “But man, he’s a good reader now.”

Once, before her grandson landed in Santa Ana, Thomas took a tour of the jail facility. Staffers led her along a catwalk with one-way glass so she could look in without inmates seeing her. The rooms are tiny and cramped with just enough space for a toilet, sink, and bunk beds: “Basically, you’re sharing maybe a 6-by-8 bathroom with a stranger.”

Thomas said inmates pay for toiletries like soap, toothpaste, and deodorant. They often wash things in the sink and hang them to dry. “They’re responsible to keep their area clean,” Thomas said. “But you’re with people who don’t even know the concept of clean.”

Many inmates recently spent time living on the streets and struggle with mental illness or general sickness. Some are going through drug or alcohol withdrawal with its associated vomiting, diarrhea, shakes, and delirium: “It’s like walking into hell,” Thomas said.

Eventually, her grandson decided to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and accept an 11-year sentence just to get out of jail. His attorney thought she could get the sentence down to seven years, but Thomas said her grandson didn’t want to wait any longer. He took the deal in 2021 and got credit for 5½ years served. He’s currently finishing out his sentence in a California state prison.

An inmate sits in a single cell in an acute unit of the mental health unit at the Harris County Jail in Houston.

An inmate sits in a single cell in an acute unit of the mental health unit at the Harris County Jail in Houston. Eric Gay/AP

DURING ONE OF HER VISITS to the DeKalb County Jail, Craft asked a woman at the check-in desk what she thought was the greatest need for inmates. Her answer: mental health treatment. Craft said her son struggled with suicidal thoughts for a time, but didn’t want to tell the staff for fear of being sent to the mental health floor.

But his biggest fear? The other inmates.

Daniel told Craft sometimes his cell door wouldn’t lock. That made it hard to sleep soundly because he knew other inmates from his pod could enter his room at any time.

On July 4, 2022, Daniel called and told her he was afraid for his life. Several inmates had come into his cell, tied him up with a sheet, and beaten him up. They also used Magic shave cream to take off his hair and eyebrows. Daniel said the guys were “Bloods”—members of a gang—and had threatened him because he found out they were dealing drugs.

Craft couldn’t be sure of all the facts of the incident. But when she stepped into the visiting room to check on her son, she could see he was completely bald. He also had two large cuts on his lip and bruises on his chest and back.

After that, Craft got Daniel moved to a protective pod. But the incident haunted her. “I know it’s not a hotel,” she said. “I know it’s not supposed to be pleasant. But they’re supposed to be safe.”

Inmates aren’t the only ones affected by court dysfunction. It also takes a heavy toll on correctional officers, judges, and attorneys. Brown said the crushing load of unresolved cases in his state places a weighty burden on prosecutors already facing a thankless and difficult job. That creates high levels of turnover in many offices and feeds a vicious cycle where cases get reset every time a new lawyer takes over.

The situation is equally frustrating for people working in Georgia’s already swamped public defense system. Brown isn’t sure what the average caseload is for a public defender now. But when he left in 2020 it was typical for a single attorney to have around 300 felony cases at a time: “And I’m sure it’s much higher than that now.”

Defendants living in poverty are especially vulnerable. During his time as a public defender, Brown spent nearly a decade working with indigent clients. They couldn’t afford to post bond, hire a private attorney, or pay fines in lieu of jail time.

To resolve the current situation, Brown said, courts must decide which cases to prioritize. He said one Georgia county cleared out thousands of cases by dismissing all felony drug possession charges against people with no previous criminal histories.

“Is it right for those people to get a free ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card and others don’t?” Brown asked. “I don’t know. Maybe not.” But compared to the pending armed robbery and homicide cases in that county, Brown said, it made sense for courts to focus on crimes that have “a larger community presence and importance than just some dude who’s arrested with cocaine in his pocket.”

Barbed wire surrounds the Clarke County Jail and Sheriff’s office in Quitman, Miss.

Barbed wire surrounds the Clarke County Jail and Sheriff’s office in Quitman, Miss. Rory Doyle/The New York Times/Redux

PRISON FELLOWSHIP’S Kate Trammell said citizens are right to be concerned about rising crime rates, but she urged voters and politicians alike to make sure they are applying “the best-tested solutions.”

“We need to be sure—as sure as we can—that people who are held pretrial are really presenting a risk of harm,” Trammell said.

This risk-based approach contrasts with blanket policies like New York’s 2019 move to abolish ­monetary bail for most misdemeanors and some nonviolent felonies. Rearrest rates rose several percentage points following the sweeping changes, and crime spiked significantly in New York City during this time frame.

Meanwhile, a constitutional amendment passed by New Jersey voters in 2014 proved much more successful. Rather than taking away judicial discretion, the referendum established a risk-based metric for evaluating defendants so money isn’t the deciding factor. It also sets hard deadlines to keep cases from dragging on unfairly.

Between 2015 and 2022, New Jersey’s pretrial jail population fell 20 percent while crime rates dropped faster than the national average, according to the ­policy think tank Arnold Ventures.

Judges have to weigh public safety concerns carefully against a defendant’s right to due process. Trammell believes too many err on the side of caution: “We have a tendency across our justice system—and particularly in areas really close to concern for public safety, like pretrial incarceration—to rely too heavily on locking people up just to be safe.”

During her regular jail visits, Craft often brought her church bulletin and sang worship songs over Daniel. Contemporary songs like, “I Love You, Lord” and old gospel hymns like “Victory in Jesus” and “The Old Rugged Cross.” She wrote down verses to read with her son. Psalm 34 was one of his favorites: “I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.”

Over and over, Craft reminded Daniel of God’s sovereign purpose. “I can’t tell you what’s going to happen,” she would say. “I can’t tell you that you’re going to be set free. … But I can tell you for sure that the Lord loves you. And He is more powerful than any cruel ­person in there.”

Back at home, she preached that same message to herself every morning. Every night, she would sit with her husband and weep before the Lord. “You just keep telling yourself the truth over and over,” Craft said. “The Lord is in this, the Lord is in control of this. And He calls us to do something about it.”

Last summer, Craft and her husband submitted a petition for bond. The court granted the motion on certain conditions, including Daniel’s enrollment in a treatment center and a $50,000 bail.

Early on Aug. 8, 2023, Craft and her husband worked through a stack of paperwork at the bonding office then headed up the road to purchase an ankle monitor. Around 8 p.m. on Friday night, Craft got a call from her lawyer saying Daniel had finally been released.

She was able to see her son the next day. By that time, it had been over two years since she had hugged Daniel. He looked pale and skinny, but he was there. And there was no glass between them.

Daniel has two stacks of postcards from his time behind bars—notes sent by people praying for him. For Craft, those letters are an Ebenezer, “a memorial of this beautiful thing that God did through these people loving us.”

It’s a reminder she still needs. Today, Daniel is in a treatment program, but he’ll soon be back behind bars. On Feb. 14, a judge said she planned to sentence him to four years, with credit for two years served. While they wait for the final decision, Craft holds fast to those memorials of God’s faithfulness.

—WORLD has changed the names of the families in this story to protect the integrity of their legal cases

Grace Snell

Grace is a staff writer at WORLD and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.


Please wait while we load the latest comments...