By Gordon McLaughlin · 2022-08-08
As we begin to dig in and cross reference data points to make our office more efficient and ensure swift resolution for victims and meaningful accountability for our defendants, one section that caught our attention was the gradual but consistent increase in time to felony resolution. The median number of days from case filing to case resolution has increased from around 100 days in 2017 to closer to 200 days in 2022.
Certainly, COVID and the resulting court shutdowns in 2020 and 2021 contributed to the issues. However, there has been a steady increase, which far predates the pandemic, from 2017 to present.
Also of note, according the data, the number of felony cases filed since 2017 has decreased:
In order to help alleviate this increase in case delay, we have embarked on significant discussion and analysis to get to the roots of the issue. We have conducted several internal work sessions where our office explored potential contributors to the problem and developed action steps to begin to address it. While many factors may be external to our office, we focused on possible internal contributors as that is where we can make the most direct and significant impact. We have also begun sharing this data with external stakeholders such as the Public Defender's Office, the private defense bar, and our local judges so they are aware of the trends and can look into their own practices too. We will continue to share the data and discuss process improvements with other members of the criminal justice system.
One contributing factor for case delay may be the timeliness of dismissal. We identified a similar trend where the timeliness to dismissal has decreased steadily since 2018. Identifying cases which are not appropriate for prosecution - for instance, because they cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt - at the earliest stage of the case is in the best interests of the victim, defendants, and the community.
Along with our partner judicial districts and PPI, we have begun to work on ways to track reasons for dismissal so we can get to the bottom of why cases are being dismissed as a first step in reducing unnecessary delay. In the meantime, we have presented this data to our attorneys and discussed strategies for recognizing problematic cases earlier in the process.
Another factor which we hope can mitigate unnecessary delay is to work to reduce the number of hearings held per case. While we have already managed to reduce this metric since 2021, our aim is to make further progress. Ultimately, case continuances are decided by the presiding judge, not our office, and they are often requested by defense. While some continuances are important to a fair justice process - an accused defendant needs time to prepare their case - by tracking the number of continuances, the requesting party, and the reasons behind them, we can more effectively lobby judges for speedier resolutions when appropriate. We aim to work in collaboration with the State Judicial Branch or on our own to create clearer tracking of continuance reasons.
We have also worked on an Expedited Pilot Program where cases involving in-custody defendants are docketed sooner than defendants awaiting resolution out-of-custody. Reducing delay in resolution time for those experiencing pre-trial detention will improving timeliness for defendant most impacted by delay.
As we continue to work through the new indicators, contextualize them, analyze pros and cons of different action steps, and dig deeper into the data, we have also begun to discuss a multitude of other internal policy and procedure changes. Possible steps that we will be exploring include:
- Enhancing our felony screening process and misdemeanor charge review to ensure appropriate charges at the outset of a case,
- Onboarding more law enforcement agencies to our automated LEDES discovery system to improve our timeliness of discovery,
- Creating more rigorous filing standards for law enforcement case completion,
- Leveraging the use of deferred judgment and diversionary resolutions to resolve cases,
- Increasing the use Preliminary Hearings or Grand Juries to advance cases in the process,
- Improving communication timeliness and proactive outreach to opposing parties,
- Assessing appropriateness of plea disposition offers to incentivize just resolutions, and
- Reviewing our plea paperwork process and ability to resolve cases at each appearance.
Why does it matter?
The longer a case lasts, the more hardship it can cause for victims and defendants and it can create a backlog of cases which burdens the criminal justice system and wastes resources. Some may know the old adage "justice delayed is justice denied." That is an outcome every actor in the criminal justice system has a stake in avoiding.
We will be examining these cases with a goal of reducing case length. We plan to review what factors may be contributing to delays in case resolution, including:
- Factors within our control: number of continuances requested by our office, timeliness of offers and other correspondence, training of our staff, staffing levels.
- Factors out of our control: the number of continuances requested by the defense or the court, delay in having jury trials due to COVID, processing of drug testing, outstanding warrants of a defendant who is no longer appearing for court.
- Review indicators that cases have become increasingly complex (increased complexity of criminal networks and digital evidence, more evidence including the exponential growth in body worn cameras).
Sometimes with more data comes more questions, but the ultimate goal is to create data points to hold ourselves accountable to the community, and to be able to objectively review our overall performance. Since, for the first time, we have begun to collect, analyze, and publish this data, we (and you) can watch how the timeliness to disposition changes over time and our service to the community improves.