Courts: Reaching the finish line


The fourth leg of our criminal justice system analogy is the court system. First, there are many courts in Louisiana. Since we’re focused on violent crime in our state, we will be honing in on the District Courts, which have jurisdiction over state felony offenses. Second, it’s important to note that the “court system” consists of various components. In any criminal session of court, a Judge presides, but many other actors not directly part of the Judge’s office are necessary for the court to operate. They include Bailiffs, Clerks, Court Reporters, Prosecutors and defendants.

If the defendant is not represented by private counsel, he will likely be represented by yet another government component – the Indigent Defenders Office. All of this makes the court system the most complex leg of our stool. Some oversimplification may be necessary to get the message across.

Right to a Speedy Trial

The right to a speedy and public trial is found in the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Although framed with protection for a criminal defendant in mind, in today’s society, the concept has become equally important to the victim of a crime. After all the quicker a victim can put the whole ordeal behind them, heal, and/or be made whole is for the best. Similar language can also be found in Article 1, Section 16 of the Constitution of the State of Louisiana with the word “impartial” also appearing. The Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure Article 701 also provides some time parameters that outline “speedy”. So, what constitutes “speedy”? Well… it depends.

Content made possible by:
BB's Auto Sales

As we discussed in our segment on Prosecutions, whether the person remains in continued custody following their arrest makes a difference. It affects the timeline by which the District Attorney must institute prosecution of a defendant. State law also requires that a trial occur within two years from the institution of the prosecution in a felony matter and within three years in a capital matter with some exceptions. Another portion of the code of criminal procedure requires the defendant to file a motion for a speedy trial to trigger more stringent deadlines.

A Judicial Problem?

The finger-pointing has already started locally when it comes to the high crime rate in our community. The police generally reference a lack of manpower, resources, and in some instances poor leadership as factors that contribute to our growing crime problem. And of course, the Sheriff’s policies regarding the jail continue to be an issue. In contrast, those in Corrections are quick to point to Lafayette City-Parish Government’s failure to fund a new jail. They also point to the practices of the District Attorney or more broadly the court system’s failure to promptly adjudicate cases.

Just about everyone agrees that the entire system was disrupted in 2020 when the seasonal bug temporarily changed the way we all conducted ourselves. But we need to remember that all crime begins with the intentional act of a person! The court system is just the process our government deploys to address criminal behavior after it has occurred.

In Lafayette Parish, the felony court docket is divided into five tracks, with each track having one day per month for felony trials. So, in essence, if every felony trial track has just one case every month proceed to trial our system will dispose of only 52 felony criminal cases by trial a year. However, thousands of felony arrests are made annually.

Content made possible by:
Allen Edmonds Ad

A review of data involving felony criminal court cases in Lafayette Parish in January 2023 revealed some interesting things. Initially, we were going to focus on felony criminal cases coming before the court in January 2024. However, the court was closed on multiple days due to weather and other unexpected issues. So instead we shifted the random sampling of data to January of 2023.

The Five Tracks

During that period 2,368 felony criminal matters appeared on the docket. Most notably there were 675 matters set for pre-trial (28.5%); 554 matters set for arraignment (23.4%); and 358 appearances for Drug Court (15.1%). But again, our main focus here is on felony criminal cases and how they are progressing toward final adjudication. Arraignments, 72-hour court appearances, bail hearings, habeas corpus proceedings, and other hearings, while they are all part of due process, don’t really tell us much about adjudication. So, we narrowed it down even further to matters that appeared on the five felony trial dockets.

None of the matters appearing on the five felony trial dockets proceeded to trial in January of 2023. This is not as surprising as some may think. Let’s consider a study completed by the National Center for State Courts. Out of five million felony criminal cases disposed of 92% of them are by guilty plea or dismissal with less than 5% actually proceeding to trial. So what other metrics should we look at to determine whether the Courts are doing their part to timely resolve felony criminal matters?

State Court Standards

As it turns out the National Center for State Courts (NSCS) has been looking into these types of things for over forty years. They have pointed out that while the members of society in general have come to be acquainted with “very fast turnaround and convenience” our court processes have only experienced marginal changes. Surveys have revealed that the chief complaint involving the courts is the slowness of resolving a matter. Further, there exists a substantial disconnect between public expectations of the timeliness of court decisions and the pace of American justice.

There is also the Conference of State Court Administrators which promulgated national time standards for cases in state courts back in 1983. At the time COSCA believed that 100% of felony grade cases should be resolved within 180 days! Even those who watch CSI case closures in under thirty minutes on television recognize that standard would be hard to meet in any case where forensic evidence serves as the basis of prosecution.

The American Bar Association also established “speedy trial standards” back in 1968. Those standards have undergone several revisions and at present, the ABA believes an acceptable metric for evaluating felony-grade criminal prosecutions to be 90% resolution within 120 days, 98% resolution within 180 days, and 100% resolution within 365 days.

A more practical set of standards have been promulgated by NCSC. Those standards are that of felony-grade criminal prosecutions 75% should be resolved within 90 days, 90% within 180 days, and 98% within 365 days. So how does Lafayette Parish shape up?

Comparison of Lafayette Parish to NCSC Standards

Our review consisted of the random selection of felony criminal cases that appeared on the trial dockets in January of 2023. We found that only 4.9% were resolved within 90 days from the date the prosecution was initiated (compared to the NCSC 75% standard), only 14.1% were resolved within 180 days (NCSC 90% standard), and only 30.2% were resolved within 365 days (NCSC 98% standard). This demonstrates that our local court system is not keeping up with the pace of nationally promulgated standards and other courts that have implemented a process of achieving these performance measures.

We then looked at a second random sampling of cases. Instead of examining cases that appeared on the trial docket in January of 2023, we reviewed all cases in which the prosecution was initiated in January of 2023. This time we observed 6.0% of cases being resolved within 90 days from the date the prosecution was initiated, 21.4% within 180 days, and 43.2% within 365 days. Although there was a slight improvement in this set of data, our criminal justice system falls far behind other courts that have adopted standards for case resolution.

When looking closer at all cases filed in January of 2023, we find that 133 of the 234 matters (56.8%) remain open over a year later. Couple this with the average number of days it takes the prosecutor to institute charges from the date of offenses, 260.3 days. That means a majority of felony charges remain open nearly two years after the date of the offense being committed.

Lack of Performance Measures, Transparency, and Accountability

Our criminal court system seems to lack any system or mechanism for setting goals and tracking outcomes, results, and progress. To be sure, we did ask if the Judges’ offices compiled or maintained “any annual statistical reports, graphs or other data reflecting the number of criminal cases prosecuted, dismissed or adjudicated.” We were told this data is not maintained by our Judges’ offices.

Thus it doesn’t appear that anyone in our District Court Judges’ offices is tracking data related to cases and outcomes. No one is crunching the numbers to determine how long the process takes. This also means no one is implementing any changes in practices based on available data that could ultimately improve outcomes. Absent any data that would demonstrate what works and what doesn’t, it’s anyone’s guess where the system can be tweaked to make it more efficient and effective.

Effective Criminal Case Management

The Effective Criminal Case Management of the National Center for State Courts indicates:

  • The factors that affect timeliness are determined by the court’s policies and practices.
  • Becoming a high-performing court starts with gathering the information needed to appraise the results of current practice, make necessary changes, and measure progress toward the court’s goals.
  • Despite all their differences, courts are more alike than different.
  • What works in successful courts can be generalized to other courts across the country.
  • All courts have the potential to handle criminal cases effectively and improve how justice is served.

Our elected Judges must create circumstances to improve the performance and effectiveness of our criminal courts. It just takes the desire and effort to make a change. That doesn’t always require more funding. Research has shown that when courts take effective steps to meet time standards in criminal cases, the judges, lawyers, and support staff time and resources are used more efficiently. Until our elected officials at all levels of our criminal justice system (not just Judges) take some initiative to reform their internal practices, this fourth leg of the stool will remain the most wobbly. At this rate, it won’t be long until it completely collapses, leaving us to fall on our rears. Unless that’s where we already find ourselves?


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This