The English poet Walter Landor once said, “delay of justice is injustice.” While these words were spoken over 100 years ago, the sentiment still rings true. The quest for the efficient delivery of justice was a driving force behind the National Center for State Court’s Effective Criminal Case Management project (ECCM).
Before COVID-19 forced the reduction of court operations, state courts nationwide resolved 40 criminal felony cases and 100 criminal misdemeanor cases every minute. Despite this seemingly rapid pace, most courts weren’t meeting the national time standards due to too many continuances and scheduled hearings.
To address these challenges, the NCSC launched the ECCM national initiative five years ago to identify and record best practices in felony and misdemeanor cases, which could lead to faster courts.
ECCM finalized its work in December of 2019, collecting and recording nearly 1.2 million cases from over 130 state courts in 21 states. With robust data in hand, the initiative analyzed the key metrics in criminal case flow and time to disposition and issued a set of policy recommendations aimed at increasing criminal court efficiency.
Key Findings and Recommendations
With the growing number of criminal cases processed each year, congestion can sometimes be inevitable. ECCM identified five key findings that can assist in the elimination of legal congestion:
- Researchers estimated the number of resolved criminal cases yearly in the state courts for the first time. They counted more than 18 million cases in total – 5 million felonies and 13 million misdemeanors.
- Surprisingly, no court in the study meets the current standard for case resolution. On average, courts in the study resolved 83% of felony cases within 365 days and 77% of misdemeanors within 180 days. However, the standard states that 98% of felony cases should be resolved within 365 days, and 98% of misdemeanor cases should be resolved within 180 days.
- Presiding judges who state disapproval of elongations tend to resolve cases faster than those who don’t make this clear.
- Notably, efficient courts report dismissing fewer cases than slower courts. By all accounts, they are quicker among all case types and manners of disposition.
- Court structure plays a small role in average timeliness, with two-tiered courts being the most timely and single-tiered courts being the least.
Based on these findings, the ECCM developed three recommendations for increasing court efficiency:
- Limit continuances;
- Compile good data that helps 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.
Increasing Court Efficiency in Illinois
Despite five years of exploration, ECCM researchers could never have factored in the impact of COVID-19 on the state courts. In some states, courts were already adopting non-traditional technology to improve access to justice before the pandemic. For example, in Illinois, the Circuit Court of Cook County and the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice launched a Remote Video Pilot program in three divisions of the Circuit Court of Cook County in December of 2019.
In addition, since March, the Illinois Supreme Court has issued several pandemic-related court orders that support efficiency and access to justice. Most recently, the Court permitted circuits to conduct jury selection in civil cases via video conference and expanded its Volunteer Pro Bono Program for Criminal Appeals statewide. These changes build upon rules amended in May to support the use of remote hearings.
“The Illinois Courts were exploring new policies for expanding remote appearances in civil cases before the pandemic hit,” said Chief Justice Anne M. Burke in May. “COVID-19 accelerated the adoption of those policies for both civil and criminal cases and created an opportunity for our courts to use technology to improve the administration of justice, increase efficiency, and reduce costs.”
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