By Cecilia Low-Weiner, Research Analyst at the Data Collaborative for Justice and Ed Spillane, Presiding Judge of College Station Municipal Court, Texas
With increasing public scrutiny and calls for reform throughout the criminal justice system, a judge’s role as an impartial, fair, and balanced arbiter of the law is more important than ever. Increasingly, the judiciary is asked not only to administer justice but also work with compassion to understand the communities in which they serve. With this powerful role in mind, a judge must strive to always learn new and improved ways of serving the court and the public through continued legal training. In recent years, judicial communities have embraced the need for increased training on the most pressing issues through emerging research.
The Data Collaborative for Justice (DCJ) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, funded by Arnold Ventures, seeks to provide practitioners and policymakers with empirical evidence to inform conversations around the criminal justice system’s response to lower-level offenses. In July 2018, the DCJ released a special issue of Criminal Justice Policy Review. This special issue covered topics ranging from police officer use of discretion to pretrial detention and court processing. While each of the articles provide important insights, there are four which are particularly relevant to judges and those that provide continuing education to the judiciary. This article focuses on those four papers and the lessons that can be learned, and shared, to improve the course of justice.
Revenue Incentives from Fines and Fees
Many state legislatures have created perverse incentives that run contrary to courts’ goals of proportionate punishment, fairness, and efficiency, by relying on fines and fees from misdemeanor convictions for revenue and State funding. Martin (2018) examined monetary sanctions in Nevada and Iowa, focusing on the differing motivations these two states have to collect fines and fees as well as differences in how the states allocate receipts from such funds. The author suggests that monetary sanctions are being used to generate revenue to the detriment of achieving punishment goals. While originally thought of as an inexpensive alternative to incarceration – good for both punishment and deterrence – monetary sanctions are now understood to have a high social cost that reduces fairness and equity within the system.
Pretrial Detention and Readmissions
Judges have a common goal of reducing unnecessary detention of defendants, through diversion programs and successful interventions. Kim et al. (2018) used a pretrial detention admission population in New York City between 2000 and 2002, and assessed their likelihood of pretrial readmission over a 10-year period. About 60 percent of the sample were readmitted at least once within 10 years, and on average, if readmitted, they were readmitted three times. Individuals admitted for property crimes and substance sale were more likely to be readmitted for pretrial, which suggest economic hardship as a possible factor of pretrial readmission. The authors also addressed the point that the likelihood of pretrial detention is higher for non-violent misdemeanor charges and emphasized the need to assess the personal, public safety, and fiscal costs for detaining those individuals pretrial. Focusing on diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration may be better investment to prevent future incarceration.
Right to Counsel in Misdemeanor Prosecutions
Two articles examined no-lawyer-courts and the failure to appoint counsel at a defendant’s first appearance and highlighted the detrimental effects of not having counsel present. Harvey et. al. (2018) found that the defendants’ constitutional right to counsel in misdemeanor prosecutions was frequently violated, leading to lengthy confinements, misguided plea bargains, invalid waivers, and unconstitutional sentences in no-lawyer courts in St. Louis. Worden et al. (2018) found that when indigent defense programs adopted measures to ensure that counsel was present at first appearance, judges adapted to the new practice in various ways: some increased their rate of releasing on recognizance, while others set lower bails in misdemeanor cases. Overall, as a result, defendants were less likely to be detained before disposition, and when they were detained, they were likely to be detained for briefer periods.
Improving the Pace of Criminal Case Processing
As frameworks for docket management and case processing penetrate judicial education, the question of how to improve efficiency while maintaining quality is at the forefront. Ostrom et al. (2018) finds that caseload composition (i.e. charge types) within misdemeanors and felonies follow similar patterns across courts. Additionally, consistent with the principle of proportional treatment, more serious cases resulted in longer time to disposition than less serious cases. Despite these consistencies, the total time to disposition was longer in some courts than in others.
These findings suggest that achieving tighter time frames in courts with faster court processing times comes down to more efficient court practices. The author suggests that effective court management involves creating goals and expectations of time frames and outcomes, and clearly communicating and following up on these expectations to all parties. Further, this study suggests that time standards provide an effective framework for setting goals and expectations, while balancing issues of quality and timeliness.