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Amid courthouse backlogs, the right to a speedy trial takes on new meaning

On Dec. 3 Brady Daniel Zipoy, who has been held in Scott County Jail since June 8 on a second-degree murder charge, sat in a jailhouse conference room with handcuffed hands resting on the table in front of him. Unlike pre-pandemic hearings, 24-year-old Zipoy, his attorneys, Scott County Judge Paula D. Vraa and state prosecutors appeared in rectangles on a computer screen instead of in a courtroom.

Like most things in the pandemic world, hearings at courthouses across the state look far different than they used to.

On Nov. 30, the Minnesota Supreme Court placed a two-month moratorium on criminal jury trials and ordered all court hearings to be held remotely.

Scott County Attorney Ron Hocevar said the inability to meet in person for hearings has decreased litigation efficiencies and created backups that could affect the system for a year or more.

On the other hand, Scott County Sheriff Luke Hennen said Zoom hearings have increased jail efficiencies, since offenders no longer need to be transported from the jail to the courthouse.

Moving virtual

Hocevar said before the supreme court ruling took effect and turned everything virtual, the Scott County Government Center in Shakopee, which houses court administration, was performing one or two trials each month, which kept things moving, albeit slowly.

“Most of them went fairly well with a little more hassle,” he said.

Now, those trials are halted entirely, adding a new layer to the already notoriously slow courts process.

But Hennen said that, across the street at the Scott County Jail, the virtual world has brought about increased efficiencies among Scott County sheriff’s deputies and jail staff. For example, typically when someone is committed to a state hospital in Fargo as part of their sentence, the sheriff’s office is responsible for transporting that person to the Scott County Courthouse for a hearing that may only take 15 minutes.

“That’s good for safety and staffing needs,” Hennen said, adding that in any given year, Scott County Jail staff moves nearly 3,000 defendants from courtrooms to the jail, and vice versa. Transporting defendants adds levels of complexity, Hennen said, such as delivering food for defendants who are at the courthouse during meal times, and dealing with an increased risk for escapes or assaults.

In addition, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, taking defendants out of the jail for a hearing at the courthouse meant that, upon their return to the jail, those individuals would have to be placed in isolation.

Now, those hearings can happen remotely — something Hennen hopes will continue after the pandemic, as well.

“A lot of these court appearances are short appearances; these aren’t jury trials,” Hennen said. “These are quick updates on hearings. So that’s been my push.”

At the courthouse, Hocevar said while Zoom hearings may be more convenient on one side of the coin, on the other side, virtual hearings have significantly decreased litigation efficiencies. Ironically, Zoom hearings have led to a significantly higher number of failure-to-appears, especially for minor offenses like traffic tickets.

For the first week in December, Hocevar said the court had scheduled 407 arraignment hearings. Of those, 88 individuals pleaded not guilty, meaning another court date will be scheduled, and 180 individuals failed to appear.

That means only 139 of those cases were actually resolved.

Hocevar said the county is still grappling with finding out why they are dealing with so many failure-to-appears with virtual hearings. He said one reason may be because defendants don’t take them as seriously. Another may be a lack of access to technology, though he added he doesn’t think technology access is a valid excuse since “almost everyone has a smartphone these days.”

In addition, Hocevar said, prosecutors and defense attorneys aren’t able to handle multiple clients at once like they would on a normal day at the courthouse.

“Normally you’ve got the public defenders talking to people in conference rooms one after the other,” Hocevar said. “Here, you’re not able to do that.”

Right to a speedy trial

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that “the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy... trial.”

At the start of the pandemic, the Scott County Courthouse logged 5,000 pending cases. Now, there are 8,200 pending cases — and that number continues to swell.

Hocevar said because of the significant delay and backlog of court hearings and trials, he predicted defense attorneys might make the case that their clients were not provided a speedy trial.

“I sure would make that motion as a defense attorney,” Hocevar said. “But speedy trial rights are being extended past the regular date, and the courts will use it as an extenuating circumstance. It is a pretty serious extenuating circumstance.”

Hocevar said even after the courts fully open back up, it could take a year or more before scheduling is back to normal.

“I could see the courts adding some additional calendars, but there’s only so many judges, attorneys and courtrooms to go around,” he said.

The backlog in trials and hearings will affect defendants differently depending on where they sit on the court’s priority list. If someone is in custody on murder charges, for example, and facing life in prison, Hocevar said they could be waiting quite some time before their trial date.

“If there’s a lot of work to do, (prosecutors) might not make a big deal out of it because they need that time to get prepared,” Hocevar said.

On the other hand, Hocevar said, if a defendant is facing 18 months in prison and they’ve already been held in jail for six or seven months, “that is a big deal.”

Hocevar said what most concerns him about the court’s backlog are the defendant’s rights.

“We’re all sworn to uphold the Constitution, and we want to do the best we can to not violate anyone’s rights,” he said, adding once the courts open back up, “you want to get it done quickly but also correctly. So it can’t just be a mad dash.”

“The judicial system, in the best of times, is not known for its speediness,” Hocevar said.

Released without bail

Hennen said jail intake, or the number of people in custody per day, has climbed from the 60s to the 90s since this summer. But that’s still low compared to pre-pandemic jail intake, which normally hovered between 130 and 140 per day, Hennen said.

Part of the reason those numbers are down, Hennen said, is because the courts are “trying to keep the processes moving.”

“There’s some guidelines the judges have adopted to keep people with no public safety risk from not coming into the building,” Hennen said, giving the example of someone who missed a court date for a low-level traffic offense and would typically be issued a warrant.

“It’s the judges who decided to not issue a warrant and give them a new court date to keep them out of their building.”

Hennen added the jail was built oversized, which has made it fairly easy to isolate new arrests to mitigate the spread, though in order to continue safely isolating inmates, the jail can only hold so many people.

“As the numbers go up, there’s only limited cells to isolate in,” Hennen said. “So we get a little closer to that maximum.”

Hocevar said he’s concerned that offenders being released without monetary bail pose a public safety concern.

“The only thing happening in-person are bail hearings, and more of those people are being released, which in my opinion isn’t great for public safety,” Hocevar said.

Hennen said public safety hasn’t been affected at all, since the people being released are low-level offenders who do not pose a public safety risk.

“When you think of the very serious crimes, the backup doesn’t affect them at all,” Hennen said. “If you want to challenge your traffic ticket, it’s probably getting bumped back. Things like that get pushed back, and it’s going to be a lot of waiting. So it’s that kind of smaller stuff. Otherwise it doesn’t really impact public safety.”


A Winter Lights display commemorates the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s apple breeding program.


Education
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Pandemic interruptions leave gaps in annual student progress data

The pandemic’s impact on key student achievement indicators in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District remains largely unknown after the spring’s school closures disrupted the collection of student progress data.

The Minnesota Department of Education requires districts to file an annual academic progress report, which reflects data gathered through two key programs; World’s Best Work Force and Achievement & Integration.

The programs aim to increase student achievement and reduce academic disparities, but data collected for the combined report only focuses on a few indicators of student success — such as standardized testing and literacy skills.

Imina Oftedahl, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction, delivered the annual progress reports to the Board of Education this month.

This fall’s incoming kindergarteners showed a “significant decline” in kindergarten readiness, Oftedahl said.

Kindergarten readiness is measured by the percentage of incoming kindergartners meeting or exceeding benchmarks on pre-reading skills.

This year, around 41% of incoming kindergartners met the fall benchmark. This demonstrated a 9% decline compared to last year’s data and fell short of district goals by 10%.

Oftedahl said the decline may reflect the pandemic’s detrimental impact on preschool attendance and programming.

Not all student groups were impacted equally by the decline when separated into racial and economic groups.

Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) students, and students who qualify for free or reduced meal prices, each saw a 2% increase in kindergarten readiness compared to last year.

However, both groups fell short of the district’s progress goal.

Latino students experienced the sharpest decline in kindergarten readiness with only 13% of students meeting benchmarks this fall.

Last year, the district reported 18% of Latino students had met benchmarks with a goal to raise the percentage to 29% in 2020.

“Kindergartners in the Latinx group really did demonstrate a step backward,” Oftedahl said, adding targeted interventions are taking place this month to help address individual student needs.

The extra boost of daily instruction and practice on foundational skills is delivered by the district’s elementary learning specialists.

Reading proficiency All students achieving grade-level reading proficiency by third grade is another measured indicator of student achievement.

The district set a goal to raise the percentage of students achieving grade-level reading proficiency on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) from approximately 44% in 2019 to approximately 66% in spring 2020.

However, the district is unable to collect or report progress data because the tests were not administered in the spring due to the pandemic.

The percentage of third grade students demonstrating reading proficiency on the MCAs declined in the district between 2018 in 2019; the district aimed to raise the percentage from roughly 49% in 2018 to roughly 53% in 2019, but fell short with roughly 44% of students demonstrating grade-level reading proficiency on the spring 2019 testing.

Without 2020 testing, it’s unclear how students’ testing results compared to the district’s goals.

MCAs are not typically helpful in assessing individual student needs, Oftedahl said last year, but rather help in planning student instruction, support and enrichment.

Disparities

The pandemic’s impact also left the district with missing pieces of data used to track academic disparities.

Without the administration of several annual tests, the district was unable to report data on four achievement indicators — oral reading fluency in elementary students, reading MCA scores and ACT scores.

The MCA data is broken down to show academic outcome disparities, also known as the “achievement gap”.

This year, the district set a goal to close the “gap” between white and non-white students from roughly 27% in 2019 to roughly 19%.

Another goal was set to close the “gap” between students eligible for free and reduced meal prices and ineligible students from roughly 31% to roughly 23%.

Graduation rates

A glimpse into how the pandemic impacted the class of 2020 is expected early next year when the 2019-20 graduation rate data is published.

However, the data currently available for 2019-20 showed an “optimistic rise” in the district’s graduation rates, Oftedahl said.

Approximately 87% of Burnsville High School seniors graduated last school year after four years in high school.

“It is just so wonderful after several years on the board to see this kind of growth in our graduate rates across the board,” Board Chairwoman Abigail Alt said during the Dec. 10 meeting.

The graduation rate reflected an increase from roughly 85% in 2018-19, but fell short of the district’s 90% goal.

The percentage of Black or African American students graduating in four years increased in 2019 to 83%, and the Latino student group also increased to 71%.

Sixty percent of American Indian students graduated in four years, which fell short of the district’s 72% goal, but reflected a small student group of five students.

Graduation rates trended upward in 2019 for almost all student groups, but students receiving English language services experienced a dip to 58%.

“This group continues to be a group for intervention and support and really looking at the resources we are providing in high school to support them academically,” Oftedahl said.

At the Burnsville Alternative High School, the graduation rate remains steady with about half of students graduating in four years. However, more than 85% of BAHS students ultimately graduate with additional learning years.


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