Behind the Courthouse Door


Photo by walknboston Via Flickr

A pilot program in Wisconsin is the first in the country to review county courts statewide and measure how they perform under the strain of large caseloads.

The study also tracked the impact of deferred sentencing, how long cases take to get through the courts, how judges set bail, and how quickly public defenders are assigned to low-income defendants.

The results were released Monday at the National Forum on Criminal Justice, an annual meeting sponsored by the National Criminal Justice Association, Justice Research and Statistics Association, and U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance. This year’s session, in Breckenridge, Co., was attended by more than 300 public safety officials. The three-day forum includes sessions on research, reforms, policy and technology.

Prior to this pilot by the non-profit Measures for Justice (MFJ), there was no monitoring method for local criminal justice systems in Wisconsin—or any state in the U.S.—to gauge how well or poorly they are performing on an ongoing basis.

That means that the 3,143 counties in the nation do not have the same accountability measures for county courts comparable to the tools used to review public schools, medical care, drinking water and the atmosphere.

The data will allow county officials to identify what they are doing well, where they need to improve and any patterns that could become major problems, said Amy Bach, president of MFJ.

“You can look up data and see where the schools with good test scores are located are, or you can look up the water quality of a city,” Bach, told forum participants. “But not for the courts.

“It's hard for insiders or outsiders to see patterns or problems if there is no data.”

Bach did not identify each county because the data has not yet been released to local officials, she said. That review will take place shortly,

The pilot study shows distinct patterns in Wisconsin's 72 counties.

Her findings include:

  • One county had an 80 percent successful deferral rate – in which the prosecutor agrees to dismiss all charges in exchange for the defendant successfully fulfilling certain conditions – while another county's rate was only 22 percent. A high successful deferral rate can reduce the system's financial costs and the collateral costs of conviction, Bach said.
  • It took one county 187 days from initial appearance to case closure while another county completed the process in 103 days.
  • In one county, 35 percent of felony defendants were held without bail while another county released 56 percent of its felony defendants on their own recognizance.
  • Only 36 percent of indigent defendants in one county received a state public defender; it took nearly four weeks to have a permanent attorney assigned; and more than 50 percent of those cases involved a change of attorney at some point in the case.

Bach, a journalist and law professor from Rochester, N.Y., founded MFJ in 2011 after doing research for her book, Ordinary Injustice: How American Holds Court.

She found that approximately 21.4 million cases a year are heard in county and state courts nationwide, including such offenses as drug possession, assault, driving while intoxicated, theft, and murder.

“Justice in America happens at the local courts, and each local court has its own level of justice,” she said.

MFJ, with a $50,4000 grant from the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance, as well as other sources of financial support, conducted the first pilot in Milwaukee County from February through December 2013. It was one of the most data-friendly counties in the country, Bach said.

The group expanded the pilot statewide shortly after the Milwaukee pilot began. They plan to review the results with all of the counties this fall.

The MFJ Data Council that created the system includes criminologists, researchers and practitioners from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Vera Institute of Justice. Bach said she recruited people who were willing to take on the challenge of collecting the data and creating a uniform measurement.

“We want to collect data that means something to the people using the courts and to be able to see where things can improve,” she said.

Pilots will be conducted in at least four more states in 2015: North Carolina, Utah, Florida and Pennsylvania. The goal is to eventually get the performance measuring system introduced in all 50 states, Bach said.

The data will allow officials to use the information to enhance public safety, promote fairness and accuracy and improve fiscal responsibility, she added.

White House Shifts Drug Strategy

Earlier, conference participants heard a presentation on the new federal drug strategy by Michael Botticelli, acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

In a keynote luncheon address, Botticelli focused on the shift to targeting serious drug traffickers rather than non-violent drug offenders. He also cited statistics showing the high rate of overdoses in the United States, primarily from people abusing pain medication—and briefly touched on the apparently growing acceptance of marijuana use.

“In the U.S., more 12th graders smoke marijuana than tobacco,” he said. “And their perception of the risk of using marijuana has plummeted to an all-time low.”

When members of the audience returned to the marijuana question, Botticelli repeated the federal government's position that it would not pursue “low-level marijuana offenses” in Colorado and Washington where marijuana has been legalized.

Last year, federal guidelines made clear that marijuana businesses operating in compliance with their states' laws and not tied to other criminal activity would not be targeted for enforcement.

However, if the two states are unable to keep pot away from children or from gangs attempting to exploit the marijuana industry, the federal government could intervene, he said. He didn't comment about other states where marijuana legalization is being discussed.

He also likened the “commercialism” of marijuana to the tobacco industry.

“I'm not an economist and I'm not a business person but it's no secret that the industry is not going to make its money off the occasional user,” Botticelli said.

“We don't see that with the alcohol industry and we don't see that with the tobacco industry. You make money off of heavy users and you make your money breeding loyal customers and getting them loyal when they are very young.”

Cindy Brovsky is a freelance writer and published author based in Denver. She worked for 20 years as a newspaper reporter, including for The Denver Post and Associated Press. She welcomes comments from readers.

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