How can criminal courts be faster? ⏰

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Groundbreaking project could lead to ‘faster courts’ nationwide

Before the coronavirus pandemic reduced court operations, state courts nationwide resolved 40 criminal felony cases and 100 criminal misdemeanor cases every minute of every day, but most courts failed to meet national time standards because judges allowed too many continuances and scheduled too many hearings.

These findings come from one of the most ambitious undertakings of its kind, the Effective Criminal Case Management project, a five-year examination of 1.2 million felony and misdemeanor cases from 136 courts in 21 states. NCSC has just released a report that details the project’s findings, conclusions and recommendations. The researchers who worked on the project say the recommendations provide a roadmap for how courts can operate faster and more efficiently. They recommend that courts:

  • Limit continuances;
  • Compile good data that help them figure out why some cases are resolved more quickly than others; and
  • Schedule hearings on dates that maximize the likelihood that prosecutors and defense attorneys will be prepared.

Here are a handful of the project’s major findings:

  • The project allowed researchers for the first time to estimate the number of criminal cases resolved each year in the nation’s state courts – more than 18 million, five million felony and 13 million misdemeanor.
  • The average time to disposition is 256 days for felony cases and 193 days for misdemeanors, but no court in the study meets the current national time standards. Current time standards say that 98 percent of felony cases should be resolved within 365 days, and 98 percent of misdemeanor cases should be resolved within 180 days. On average, courts in the study resolved 83 percent of felony cases within 365 days and 77 percent of misdemeanors within 180 days.
  • The courts that resolve cases faster are led by presiding judges who make it clear that they dislike continuances, which lead to additional hearings and delays.
  • Timely courts dismiss fewer cases than the slower courts, and they are faster across all case types and all manners of disposition.
  • Differences in court structure play a small but surprising role in overall average timeliness, with single-tiered courts being least timely and two-tiered courts being most timely.

“The report’s most important conclusions revolve around what faster courts do to be fast and what slower courts do that make them slow,” said lead researcher Brian Ostrom. “We know courts are always striving to be more efficient, so our hope is that court leaders read the report and implement its recommendations. What’s at stake is whether every person’s constitutional right to due process is honored in the process of seeking justice in individual cases.”

Ostrom and NCSC consultant Patti Tobias will provide as much as 60 minutes of free advice to courts that want to know how to operate faster and more efficiently, as part of our Dr. Is In program. Go here to sign up.

And then go here to read more about this project, including an appendix that lists the courts that were involved.

New guide helps court leaders manage their message

Media has always played an important role in communicating a court's message. The National Association for Court Management and the Conference of Court Public Information Officers have released a media guide to help court leaders effectively and responsibly share news with their constituents. The guide explains how to write an effective press release, how to deal with high-profile trials and emergencies, and how to use social media. NCSC Senior Communications Coordinator Deirdre Roesch contributed to the section called “Practical Guidelines for Using Social Media,” which includes best practices, examples of inappropriate social media posts, and things courts should consider before joining social media.