Delivering Timely Justice in Criminal Cases: A National Picture  banner image

The largest national study of criminal cases ever undertaken suggests steps courts can take to dispose of criminal cases in a more timely fashion

January 11, 2021

How long do court cases take? How long should they take? These are questions we are often asked at the National Center and the answers almost invariably boil down to "it depends". But what does it depend on? Recent research conducted by NCSC's Research Division as part of the Effective Criminal Case Management (ECCM) project provided some clarity. ECCM collected data on over 1.2 million criminal cases from 136 courts across 91 jurisdictions in 21 states, making ECCM the largest national study of criminal cases ever undertaken.

The results, published as Delivering Timely Justice in Criminal Cases: A National Picture, indicate the major contributing factor to the timely disposition of criminal cases is  caseflow management practices and not organizational structure as many presumed.

Among the key findings:

  • Nationally, the average time to disposition is 256 days for felony cases and 193 days for misdemeanor cases, with considerable variation among courts.
  • Of the 5 million felony cases examined that were disposed of, 92% resulted in a guilty plea or dismissal.
  • On average, ECCM courts resolved 83% of felony cases within 365 days and 77% of misdemeanors within 180 days.
  • No court in the study met the current national time standards.  While various time standards have been put forth since the 1970s, including the Model Time Standards for State Trial Courts in 2011 , few courts are meeting those standards.
  • Many of the traditional items thought to contribute to the timeliness of criminal cases appear to have no bearing on disposition times. The size of the court, method of judicial selection, type of calendar, filings per judge, length of presiding judge term, or the availability of case management reports appeared to have no impact on criminal case times.
  • Court caseflow management practices did have an impact on the time to disposition in criminal cases. Of particular note were limits on the number of hearings and continuances per disposition and effectively managing the duration between scheduled court events.

Additional findings as well as tools to improve caseflow management can be found on the Effective Criminal Case Management project website. How your court tackling criminal case timeliness and/or caseflow management? Follow the National Center for State Courts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest and share your experiences. For Information on other topics impacting state courts, contact Knowledge@ncsc.org or call 800-616-6164.