SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Empty courtrooms have become the new normal in Utah during the COVID-19 pandemic as a result of shelter-in-place orders that began in March. But the need for our judicial process hasn’t stopped with courts taking to online video conferencing to practice social distancing for essential cases. Still, it’s causing a back-up in the court system.

“The magnitude is breathtaking. We’re accumulating cases at pretty much the same [rate] that we were pre-COVID so we have a large backlog,” said Judge Landau.”

Judge Landau said they’re having to make adjustments to more cases after the pandemic left a number of offenders without any financial means to pay their fines.

“Some people were furloughed and lost their ability to pay the court fine or they may have lost their ability to complete the community service, because the place they usually [go to] no longer [has a] need,” he said.

But a new initiative may be the solution to both of these problems. Judge Landau recently approved an order that now allows offenders to help with the community’s COVID-19 response in exchange for their fines.

“We’re trying to come up with alternate orders to allow people to freely move between a fine and community service or donations,” he said. “If someone is required to do an in-person class, we would accept an online equivalent. If someone was required to do a live assessment, our provides are allowing them to do it telephonically.”

Those opting for the alternative option can either volunteer for a select list of organizations or make a donation to Shelter the Homeless or the Salt Lake Education Foundation’s Emergency Relief Fund.

“As we were doing our research, we saw some of the community service options that cropped up such as making masks, helping with mutual aid in the community, delivering groceries, that kind of thing. We wanted to give people credit for all those COVID response-related efforts,” said Judge Landau.

He hopes that with this initiative, more people will have their cases ready to be resolved once operations resume.

“We’re trying to be as creative as possible with keeping cases moving along now with the hope that will make our fall a little less hectic,” he said.

Attorney Karra Potter said her only concerns with the new initiative is that some people may question why the donation options are limited to only two charities. Ideally, she’d like that list to be expanded to more organizations in the community. But overall, she applauds the court for getting creative and trying something new.

“I think that there are some people that will be more likely to pay their fines, knowing that it’s going to a good cause like this rather than the general treasury, the government, or to the court that just sentenced them,” said Porter.

Judge Landau explained the charities that were chosen were local and had no affiliations with any of the district court judges.

“We are mindful of the fact that these are funds that would normally go into the Salt Lake City budget. So we wanted to make sure that if we’re going to be missing some of those funds, that it would be going to something that would benefit the Salt Lake City community,” he said. “These organizations are really the most in need at this moment because of the vulnerability of their populations.”

Utah’s court system was originally scheduled to reopen on June 1st. But Judge Landau said Chief Justice Michael Durrant adjusted the order so that the process will be more staggered and varied depending on the jurisdiction.

There is currently no deadline to take advantage of this option. But when there is, the judge said there will be a 14-day notice on their website.

At this time, it’s unknown how many people have taken advantage of this option because they didn’t put a system in place to track it. Judge Landau doesn’t anticipate a high number because not many people know about it.

“Again, because the organizations we picked have no affiliation with us, they weren’t aware that we were doing this so they weren’t collecting that data either,” said Judge Landau.