The right to a speedy trial is one of the most basic guarantees of the U.S. Constitution, yet a host of variables can interfere with efficient courtroom proceedings. The practice of caseflow management helps to mitigate these variables – coordinating court processes and resources so that cases progress in a timely fashion from filing to disposition (i.e., sentencing or final settlement). Caseflow management best practices require an active effort by both judges and court managers to establish appropriate expectations, use tools to monitor actual performance against expectations, and ensure accountability for addressing issues.
The state of North Carolina is unique in that the docket management and the scheduling of criminal cases is under the jurisdiction of the district attorney (DA); whereas, in most states, it is the responsibility of the district court. Best practices demonstrate that shared accountability between both the DA and the district court for calendar and docket management is an important first step to reduce delays, ensure meaningful trials, and use judge and prosecutor time more efficiently.
In the case of North Carolina’s 26th Judicial District (the 26th District), however, the DA and the district court faced challenges with this shared management of its calendar and criminal docket. These challenges led to issues with courtroom productivity and utilization. Specifically, stakeholders were concerned that cases were rarely ready to proceed on the first hearing date; instead, the first hearing was often used as an opportunity to discover information from the police and then reset the court date to a time in the future. In some instances, cases were not being tried until the third or fourth hearing. A related concern was the length of time between each of the multiple court dates. Additionally, all court hearings were tied to the availability of officers to appear in court, which added another level of complexity to the scheduling process and contributed to delays.
Drawing on Court Management Best Practices
To address these issues, administrators in the 26th District began to have conversations with the DAs about working with the courts to ensure the timely disposition of cases. The 26th District had previously worked to examine alternatives to managing its superior court criminal docket, which resulted in the implementation of a new case management plan at the felony level. Drawing on this experience, the 26th District realized its district courts could benefit from the felony-level experience, as well as lessons learned from the engagement. The 26th District turned to the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) National Training and Technical Assistance Center (NTTAC) training and technical assistance (TTA) on case management best practices.
The 26th District’s overarching objective in requesting TTA was to “make the process more meaningful – with more certainty that events will occur how they are meant to,” said Todd Nuccio, a court administrator who has been working with the 26th District since 1992.
The Justice Management Institute (JMI), a BJA NTTAC consultant, was identified to provide TTA services to the 26th District to help them achieve this goal in making the process more meaningful. JMI applied their extensive expertise working with courts, prosecutors, and the defense bar to the engagement in the 26th District, while also helping them implement court management best practices. To get started, JMI conducted onsite assessments and site visits in North Carolina. These onsite visits and assessments were followed by an analysis of the findings, a draft recommendations report, and a presentation of these recommendations to the 26th District and BJA NTTAC. The second key phase of the engagement focused on strategic planning for the 26th District using data analysis, an assessment of challenges, and best practices recommendations and feedback.
Based on the analysis of the findings from its onsite work, JMI presented seven major recommendations for the 26th District to implement, which fall into two categories – justice system recommendations and case processing recommendations. The justice system recommendations aim to impact the local legal culture and address the policies and procedures that affect court leadership and management. The case processing recommendations focus on specific changes and events intended to promote earlier disposition.
Implementation in a Preliminary Pilot
The 26th District selected five of the seven recommendations to implement in a pilot; the goal was to demonstrate success on a smaller scale before expanding to all trial settings and addressing the remaining recommendations. The five recommendations the pilot focused on are:
- Expand accountability for calendar and docket management to a shared responsibility between the DA and the district court.
- Set standards for time to disposition and change the expectations of attorneys regarding preparation for hearings and trials.
- Measure the trial rate across all district court case types and work to reduce the number of trial settings per disposition in incremental steps.
- Expand first appearance case resolutions.
- Introduce a pretrial conference event following an initial appearance.
To execute these recommendations, the 26th District put together a new case management plan. As part of the plan, the first court appearance is now followed by an administrative hearing to develop a scheduling order and ensure, for example, that all information discovery has been released and witnesses have been identified. Now, officers do not have to appear in court, as long as their findings are shared in advance – reducing the number of variables impacting the scheduling of court appearances. Additionally, the 26th District is working to maximize the magistrates’ responsibilities so that magistrates, versus judges, are able to oversee the first hearing, which also leads to more scheduling flexibility.
Buy-in from the range of stakeholders represented in the 26th District has been critical to the success of this process. “When [the 26th District] started this process, all the main actors and constituencies were represented – including law enforcement, the defense bar, judges, clerks, and administrators,” said Nuccio. “The project team has been meeting every week, or every other week, to debrief as they go through the pilot. This has been a collaborative effort since day one.” It is the shared accountability of all stakeholders involved, not just the district court and DAs, that has been key to enhancing efficiency and inducing impact in the 26th District.
If your agency or community is experiencing issues with courtroom productivity and would like to apply for technical assistance, please contact BJA NTTAC at BJANTTAC@ojp.usdoj.gov to discuss your unique justice needs.
To submit the work of your organization or jurisdiction for consideration to be featured in a future BJA NTTAC TTA Spotlight, please email BJANTTAC@ojp.usdoj.gov.