Supporting the Nation's Judicial System & the Public it Serves

Groundbreaking Project Could Lead to ‘Faster Courts’ Nationwide

Before the coronavirus pandemic reduced court operations, state courts nationwide resolved 40 criminal felony cases and 100 criminal misdemeanor cases every minute of every day, but most courts failed to meet national time standards because of too many continuances and scheduled hearings.

These findings come from one of the most ambitious undertakings of its kind, the Effective Criminal Case Management project, a five-year examination of 1.2 million felony and misdemeanor cases from 136 courts in 21 states. The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) released a report that details the project’s findings, conclusions, and recommendations. The researchers who worked on the project say the recommendations provide a roadmap for how courts can operate faster and more efficiently.  They recommend that courts:

  • Limit continuances;
  • Compile good data that help 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.

Here are some of the project’s major findings:

  • The project allowed researchers for the first time to estimate the number of criminal cases resolved each year in the nation’s state courts – more than 18 million, five million felony and 13 million misdemeanor.
  • The average time to disposition is 256 days for felony cases and 193 days for misdemeanors, but no court in the study meets the current national time standards. Current time standards say that 98 percent of felony cases should be resolved within 365 days, and 98 percent of misdemeanor cases should be resolved within 180 days. On average, courts in the study resolved 83 percent of felony cases within 365 days and 77 percent of misdemeanors within 180 days.
  • The courts that resolve cases faster are led by presiding judges who make it clear that they dislike continuances, which lead to additional hearings and delays.
  • Timely courts dismiss fewer cases, and they are faster across all case types and all manners of disposition.
  • Differences in court structure play a small but surprising role in overall average timeliness, with single-tiered courts being least timely and two-tiered courts being most timely.

“The report’s most important conclusions revolve around what faster courts do to be fast and what slower courts do that make them slow,” said lead researcher Brian Ostrom. “We know courts are always striving to be more efficient, so our hope is that court leaders read the report and implement its recommendations. What’s at stake is whether every person’s constitutional right to due process is honored in the process of seeking justice in individual cases.”

NCSC consultants Ostrom and Patti Tobias will provide as much as 60 minutes of free advice to courts that want to know how to operate faster and more efficiently, as part of the NCSC’s Dr. Is In programGo here to sign up.

For more information about this project, including an appendix that lists the courts involved, go here.