Apr. 5—DETROIT — Wayne County law enforcement officials have launched an initiative to adjudicate more than 2,000 concealed weapons defendants as part of a larger effort to clear a docket of cases that is backlogged because of COVID-related court closures.
The effort directs more energy into clearing out traditionally low-level cases to send a signal to criminals that carrying weapons illegally will have consequences.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan laid out the strategy to prioritize and move the cases during his recent State of the City speech, "so you can't think for a second that justice isn't coming."
Chief 36th District Judge William McConico is overseeing the special docket that got underway on March 22. Under the initiative, McConico obtained cross-designation as a 3rd Circuit judge from the state court administrator, which enables him to hear and issue sentences in the felony concealed carry weapon cases.
The judge told The Detroit News that there is a backlog of 2,200 old cases with new ones come in every day. As result, he's running a pre-exam docket on Mondays and Wednesdays. He'll be taking up all new CCW cases and a portion of the backlog.
It aims to benefit defendants by bringing resolutions faster and gets more guns off the streets, he said.
"We've never really seen this amount of gun cases in our court," McConico said. "We don't want cases just to languish behind other cases. We're able to help solve this problem and make sure justice is fair and efficient."
Detroit police Chief James Craig said his officers are arresting between 60 and 100 people weekly for illegally carrying concealed weapons, and that Wayne County prosecutors are charging about 75% of the cases, "which is a high number. So they're doing their job — but the backlog is a major concern.
"What are the consequences of illegally carrying a gun in Detroit? Right now, there are none," Craig said. "If there's no risk, what happens? They continue to offend. This is so simple, but somehow a lot of people don't seem to get it."
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said she sees the CCW program as one way to address the county's growing backlog. Other options are under discussion, but those efforts, she said, are complicated by uncertainties associated with the pandemic.
Worthy said her office has been in talks with court leadership and defense attorneys about the new "pilot" program for CCW cases — individuals cited for illegally carrying concealed weapons — which are some of the county's lowest-level offenses.
Moving more of the lower-level cases, she said, enables the county to spend time trying cases for more serious offenses.
"I'm not saying these are cases we should not pay attention to, they are," Worthy said of the CCW cases. "But when we look at a scale with homicides, sexual assaults, armed robberies, child abuse, elder abuse, domestic violence, carjackings, and we look at some of our major cases, we have to figure out how we are going to try all of these cases."
Worthy said her office always lacks money and employees. The staffing issues worsened amid stresses tied to COVID and the workload. Worthy said she has lost more than 50 lawyers during the pandemic and the caseload is "untenable."
County Executive Warren Evans, she said, "gets it" and is working with Worthy's office to address it.
"You can't have 300 backed-up homicides and hundreds of nonfatal shootings. ... It's a situation that we are all trying to work collaboratively to fix," she said.
Worthy said there already was a backlog of cases prior to the pandemic because she doesn't have the staff to quickly prosecute the high number of cases in Wayne County.
In 2019, the last year for which statistics are available, there were 13,334 felony cases logged in Wayne Circuit Court, while 36th District Court handled 12,096 felonies.
"The biggest thing in my office is we have prosecutors with caseloads that are just untenable," she said. "You shouldn't have one person that has 45 homicide cases. You shouldn't have someone who has 50 sexual assault cases. Defense attorneys in comparison have maybe 13 or 14 cases when it comes to that."
The logjam also is affecting defendants, defense attorneys and everyone else affiliated with the criminal justice system, Worthy said.
"People who are awaiting trial are in jail longer than they may like," she said.
Defendants used to be tried within 90 to 120 days.
"This pandemic has changed it all," Worthy added. "We cannot bring jurors into a small jury room. You can't do it and be safe."
Detroit attorney James Schlaff said he has several clients awaiting their CCW cases to be adjudicated. He contended some of his clients' arrests were questionable, something he looks forward to arguing in court.
"We see people being pulled over for little to nothing, and the first thing out of the officer's mouth is, 'Do you have a gun?' The next thing you know, they're searching the car," Schlaff said. "The officers are supposed to have their body cams on, but in some cases, they just so happened to not be working.
"I want to see these cases get into a courtroom, so my clients can get justice. Some of them are in jail, and that's taking away a chunk of their lives. Let people have their fair hearings and trials in a fair amount of time."
Worthy said many defendants have demanded in-person hearings, which is their right, and cases have consequently backed up. Still, prosecutors are preparing to try cases and talking with victims. The Zoom hearings, she added, are constant.
"It's not as if we are sitting around doing nothing," she said.
Plans for the courts are being made and readjusted based on COVID statistics. Michigan became the top state in the country for new COVID-19 cases per population last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Craig said quick action is needed, not only for those who offend but others who plan to.
"By not addressing this issue," he said, "it sends a message of incentivizing crimes like CCW."
Freeing up courtrooms
McConico said the plan came together with input from Worthy, Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Kenny, public defenders and the city of Detroit.
The special docket, he said, frees up 36th District Court's four other examination courtrooms for homicide, carjacking and criminal sexual conduct cases.
It's unclear how long the special docket will remain in effect. When the CCW backlog is resolved, there's potential for adding other felony cases to the docket with defendants who might be eligible for diversion programs or plea agreements, McConico said.
On Nov. 5, 36th District Court officials halted in-person hearings, citing a spike in reported COVID cases locally and statewide. On Nov. 17, McConico closed the court for three weeks because of another reported increase in virus cases.
The court has since resumed hearing cases, although most hearings are held virtually.
The shutdown and logistics of organizing virtual hearings has added to an already backlogged docket, which Worthy said is "extremely difficult" and taxing for prosecutors.
"We have all the cases and all the trials that we didn't do last year on top of all the new ones that have come in in the past year, and the year we're in now," she said.
In 2019, Worthy said, Wayne County had 8,880 domestic violence cases. Last year, the volume of domestic violence cases surpassed 10,000. This year, she said, the office is on pace to exceed that.
Wayne County typically averages seven to 10 domestic violence homicides per year. In 2020, Worthy's office had 24 of those cases and nine already this year.
"It's very important for people to understand we also have to focus on the murders and highly assaultive and violent cases. The cases that put people in harm's way," she said.
COVID provides setback
Duggan, in his annual address on March 9, said communities across the country are feeling the strains of the yearlong COVID limitations on the criminal justice system.
"We are feeling the implications of it in the gunfire you are hearing in your neighborhood and the stories you are seeing on TV," he told viewers during the virtual speech.
Homicides in Detroit, Duggan noted this month, had dropped nearly 30% — from 386 to 275 — from 2012 to 2019.
But continued limitations on the justice system and the mental toll associated with COVID have spurred a new round of challenges for one of the nation's most violent cities.
In 2020, Detroit was one of several large cities to see a surge in violent crime. The city recorded 327 criminal homicides last year, up 19% from 2019, while there were 1,173 nonfatal shootings in 2020, a 53% jump from the prior year.
Craig and Duggan believe the pandemic has been a primary driver of the violence.
"When your courts are shut down, your prosecutors are shut down, your probation is shut down, we have folks who think there's no consequences," Duggan said. "I want you to know, this court system is going to reopen. There is going to be accountability and we will get this violence under control."
Despite the backup, Duggan said the CCW initiative gives him "reason for hope."
Tapping federal resources
The mayor also noted continued partnerships with the county's prosecutor, Wayne County Sheriff's Department and U.S. Attorney's Office, which was able to provide Worthy more funding to hire multiple prosecutors for gun crime cases.
Interim U.S. Attorney Saima Mohsin said the dramatic increase in nonfatal shootings and criminal homicides in 2020 means it's "more important than ever" to rely on state and local partnerships to reduce the impact of gun violence — particularly in Detroit.
Prior to the pandemic, the U.S. Attorney's Office, under a Trump administration effort coined Operation Relentless Pursue, secured money to hire seven prosecutors in Wayne County to address gun violence cases.
The program rolled out in winter 2019 in Detroit, one of seven cities targeted to tackle drug trafficking, street gangs and other violent crime.
In 2020, the U.S. Attorney's Office took on 98% more gun violence cases from Detroit than it had the year prior, Mohsin said.
The office also was given additional resources last year under Operation Legend, an expansion of then-President Donald Trump's "law-and-order" initiative that sent dozens of federal agents to the city to root out violent criminals. Operation Legend began in July and ran through Oct. 15, yielding narcotics and firearm-related charges for 100 defendants, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.
Of those individuals, 22 were charged with drug offenses, 64 with firearms-related offenses and three people with other violent crimes.
"One of the more impactful aspects of Operation Legend was that we were given manpower resources, but those were limited," Mohsin said. "Operation Relentless Pursuit and Operation Legend helped us improve even more our relationship with our state and local partners.
"That is the more important message: When we work together and try and identify where the problems lie, then we can be very impactful."