Multnomah County
District Attorney

1200 SW 1st Avenue, Suite 5200
Portland, OR 97204
503-988-3162

Multnomah County District Attorney

 
1200 SW 1st Avenue, Suite 5200
| Portland, OR 97204
| 503-988-3162
 

PPI 1.1 | Data Story: The Impact of COVID-19 on Caseloads

Publication date: 2/9/2022

Key Points

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted misdemeanor case issuance (fewer issued), but not felony case issuance (similar issued).
  • Significantly fewer cases are being disposed (closed) due to pandemic-related court closures.
  • Due to fewer case dispositions, the amount of monthly open cases has increased dramatically, placing a significant strain on the office and its prosecutors.

What does this data tell us?

The average number of new misdemeanor cases issued by DDAs sharply declined at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This decrease correlates with a decrease in misdemeanor cases referred to MCDA for prosecution by police agencies.  For example, in 2019 law enforcement referred 13,653 misdemeanor cases for prosecution to MCDA, whereas in 2020 they referred 9,120 misdemeanor cases for prosecution.

In contrast to the large decrease in new misdemeanor cases issued after the start of the pandemic, there was no decrease in the average number of new felony cases issued per DDA each month; slight month-to-month fluctuations are observed for the four-year reporting period.

Additional Context

Relying on information about the issuance of new felony and misdemeanor cases is not a sufficient way  to assess the overall workload of  DDAs. DDAs are responsible not only for issuing new cases but are also handling existing cases and coordinating with law enforcement investigations to review evidence. With the closing of the courts for an extended period of time due to COVID-19, existing cases have accumulated. In addition, while far fewer felony cases are handled by DDAs than misdemeanor cases, they typically require substantially more time and resources to dispose. 

Given these observations, it is important to also examine the impact that COVID-19 has had on both the number and type of felony and misdemeanor cases that have been disposed each month and remain open at the end of each month.

What does this data tell us?

The number of cases disposed each month significantly declined at the start of the pandemic. Prior to this, approximately 800 cases were disposed each month. In the months following the start of the pandemic, fewer than 300 cases were disposed each month.  This decline is largely attributed to COVID-19 restrictions on courthouse operations.

A notable increase in dispositions occured at the end of 2020 and extending into 2021. This was a result of the passage of Measure 110, which decriminalized the possession of small amounts of a wide variety of drugs in Oregon. Consequently, a large volume of open misdemeanor drug possession cases were dismissed during this period of time.

Additional context 

Challenges to disposing cases during the pandemic have included investigative barriers on both the policing and prosecution side, above and beyond the noted court closures. This is exacerbated by more defendants being released from custody pre-trial often without supervision or treatment options available. With both the passage of time and the dissolution of pro-social activities and in-person interactions, many cases become more difficult to resolve. Victims and witnesses necessary to disposing a case may decline to participate and cooperate, move away, or fail to recall certain events over time. 

Given the overall decrease in case disposition after the start of the pandemic, the impact on the number of open cases has been substantial, particularly among felony cases. This is discussed in detail below.

What does this data tell us? 

The trends in Figures 3 and 4 illustrate the challenges experienced across law enforcement of investigating and disposing of cases. The number of open misdemeanor cases at the end of each month has increased since the start of the pandemic. The number of open felony cases at the end of each month has also increased. It is important to note that at the end of 2021 additional prosecutors were hired to address gun violence prosecutions and growing caseload sizes. Consequently, the number of open felony cases has started to level off. 

While Figures 3 and 4 illustrate the overall increase in open cases per prosecutor, an alternative way of considering the issue is looking at open cases by Unit. Different types of cases are more resource intensive and require varying levels of care (e.g. car theft case versus child abuse case). For this reason, we also present the following graphs as reference.

What does this data tell us?

Every unit saw a significant increase in the number of open cases since the start of the pandemic. Major felonies, child abuse, sex crimes, and domestic violence cases account for some of the most complex, nuanced and intense casework, therefore requiring more work hours to dispose than minor felonies. As such, even though the Minor Felony Unit had the largest increase in the number of open cases, other units still experienced additional workload impacts despite handling fewer total cases.

Discussion

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions associated with it, both DDA caseloads and the work hours required to manage caseloads have dramatically increased. The most notable pandemic restrictions include those imposed by the courts in the interest of public health and safety. Prior to the pandemic, the court would oversee between 20-25 criminal trials per week, whereas during the pandemic that number has dropped to three to five per week. Trial delays equate to fewer resolved cases, resulting in growing open caseloads. Cases remaining open require continued case maintenance, including witness and victim contact, updating subpoenas, rescheduling trial dates, reoccurring court appearances (e.g. custody release hearings, re-arraignments on warrants), multiple rounds of plea negotiations and settlement conferences, and addressing other legal issues associated with delayed trials. The quality and quantity of victim services–including keeping victims motivated to continue with prosecution–decreases when attorneys and victim advocates are spread thin.

Other less quantifiable, though significant barriers to disposing cases during the pandemic include the inherent challenges associated with transitioning an agency designed and accustomed to in-person, largely paper based work, to remote work. This transition presented particular challenges on the front end of the pandemic as work productivity saw delays due to technological issues. Increases to DDA workload is evident through both the quantitative data above and qualitative data previously published by MCDA, derived from an attorney survey where among the most frequently cited challenges of the office were caseloads.

In response to this, District Attorney Mike Schmidt has aggressively advocated for increased resources to hire more attorneys, citing the surge in gun violence in Multnomah County and DDA caseloads. After receiving funding for, and promptly hiring, four more DDAs and two more Investigators in the fall of 2021, advocacy to add strategic positions is expected to continue into future budget cycles. Given the challenges brought on by COVID-19, however, there is more work to be done.