Speeding up court cases: reforms whittle down backlog in many states

Overcrowded courts strain the credibility of the justice system in many states, but an extended study has shown some courts are learning how to lessen, or even eliminate delays.

A recent evaluation by the National Institute of Justice of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration's (LEAA) five-year court-delay reduction program shows reason for optimism as well as considerable room for improvement in unclogging traffic jams in state and local courts.

''Courts have made more progress in reducing their backlogs in the last five years than they have in the last 50,'' says Nicholas Demos, LEAA program manager.

In some courts, the elimination of case backlogs has been dramatic. For example:

* In Providence, R.I., Superior Court, the point at which three-fourths of the cases had been processed dropped from 573 days to 104 days.

* In Detroit's Recorder's Court, a 4,000-case backlog was eliminated and the majority of cases brought to trial within 75 days.

* In Las Vegas, Nev., the median case-processing time was cut in half over a two-year period from 81 days to 40 days despite a growth in new litigation.

* In Ann Arbor, Mich., a 2,000-case backlog was eliminated and median case-processing time reduced from 286 days to 65 days.

Yet the success of courts involved in the LEAA program isn't necessarily typical. Across the country results vary widely from one jurisdiction to the next. In Hartford, Conn., for example, defendants charged with homicide must still wait 18 months or more before their trials begin.

In addition, the reduction of case backlogs is limited largely to criminal cases. Delays in civil trials are still typically measured in years. Los Angeles is perhaps the worst offender in this regard; civil cases there often languish five years before coming to trial. And in some court systems that combine criminal and civil jurisdiction, the reduction of criminal case backlogs has come at the expense of further delays in civil litigation.

But, says Robert J. Sheran, chief justice of the State of Minnesota, ''If there isn't a nationwide reduction (in case backlogs), there is at least a growing nationwide perception that the problem can and should be handled.''

In those jurisdictions where delay has been shortened, results were promising. Massive funding is not necessarily involved. Instead solutions demand a commitment to reform, cooperation between judges and attorneys to speed case processing, and the establishing of systems to monitor reforms.

The LEAA study discounted the theory that stalling tactics by defense attorneys, undersized courts, and caseloads were the primary causes for court delays. Instead, they identified less obvious but more harmful factors such as obsolete traditions, unwarranted expectations, and informal understandings between judges and attorneys.

Long trial delays concern civil libertarians because a defendant's right to a speedy trial is violated. Lawyers and judges also argue that evidence can go stale, witnesses move, and confidence in the judicial system decline when a case is bogged down for months.

On the other hand, a quick turnover of court cases has tangible effects in reducing crime. According to T. John Lizinski, former chief judge of the Michigan Court of Appeals, when Detroit eliminated its court backlog the city's crime rate fell below the national average. The reason: Repeat offenders weren't committing additional crimes while out on bail awaiting trial.

''There is an inertia built into the court system,'' says Joy Chapper, staff director of the American Bar Association's Action Commission to Reduce Court Costs and Delays. ''It needs a prod in order ro reform itself.''

That prod often has come in the form of LEAA funds - over $8.7 million since 1976. But with ongoing budget cuts in Washington, the future of the LEAA is clouded.

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