Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Improving Felony Case Progress CLE Presentation
June 27, 2013

Thank you Tim (McGinty, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor) for that introduction and for the invitation to speak at this seminar.

Thank you as well for convening a meeting of minds on this important topic. You, and every other justice system partner gathered here today are to be congratulated for taking on this issue.

I know that we can all agree that improving efficiency and reducing costs in felony cases is an important goal ... but how we achieve those goals…how we get there is what can be problematic.  As they say the ‘devil is in the details’.  Our work should center on agreeing how to get there and not let those details overshadow and defeat attaining the goal.

It’s critical to identify your objectives and where you want to end up.

Just as important is a realization that everyone must buy into this process, because everyone will have to live with it.

You must bring everyone’s interests to the table and give them due consideration, including judges and courts, prosecutors and defense attorneys, and sheriffs and police departments.

Please also keep in mind that there may be elements to the current system that you can build upon. In other words, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

One other aspect to consider is that whatever initial model is agreed upon is not the “be all and end all.” Try it on for size for six months or a year and tweak it. Recognize that the model will likely evolve and that the original is not set in stone.

Throughout this process, everyone needs to continue to be at the table. And, everyone will have to bend and give a little.

Besides congratulating you on participating, my message is also one of encouragement. You are not alone in your quest. Other jurisdictions have been where you are.

In fact, when I served as prosecutor in Summit County we revamped the felony case process with a direct indictment program and saved municipalities tons of money.  Bringing about the program was labor intensive and detail heavy but it was worth it…we got a very good product that judges, prosecutors, defense bar and law enforcement were happy with.

We cut down on jail time waiting disposition that translated in cutting costs.

There are other examples to point to as well. I will get to those in a minute, but I want to note the ongoing work to improve the felony case process with the delivery on May 31 of a draft report from the National Center for State Courts of 25 recommendations on the administration of felony indigent defense assignments in Cuyahoga County and examples of best practices across the country. While the report targets a small part of the bigger picture, it’s an important part nonetheless.

In 1989 and again in 2005, American University’s Criminal Courts Technical Assistance Project studied Cook County Illinois to review its felony case process.

While the 2005 Cook County review was intended to examine whether the criminal adjudication process was contributing to jail population pressures, the technical assistance report noted that “the review was also intended to identify areas of the process that could be improved to enhance the efficiency of the criminal case disposition process generally.”

Before highlighting a few areas in the report, it’s important to point out that Chicago and Cleveland represent an apples and oranges comparison.

The Circuit Court of Cook County is a unified trial court system with ten divisions, six geographic districts, and more than 400 judges organized into three major departments: the County Department, Municipal Department, and the Juvenile Justice and Child Protection Department. The Cook County circuit is also the largest of the 24 judicial circuits in Illinois and serves the City of Chicago and its 126 surrounding suburbs.

As we all know, Cuyahoga County – and the state of Ohio for that matter – is not a unified court system. That fact presents a whole host of challenges that some out-of-state jurisdictions don’t have to combat.

Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from Cook County.

The Cook County report identified several similar areas of concern to those in Cuyahoga County, including:

The need to create an interagency committee to meet regularly to discuss systemic issues of common concern. The Cuyahoga County report also recommended the formation of a countywide criminal justice supervisory committee, now known as the Justice System Reform Governing Board.

Both the Cook and Cuyahoga county reports recommended involving experienced prosecutors early on in the charging process.

Both reports also advocated training on effective caseflow management.

To give you an idea of the challenges faced in Cook County, a 2010 report by the Center for Health and Justice cited that an average of three weeks passes between arrest and preliminary hearing, with a large number of defendants detained in jail before being processed and released.

Across the country, there are examples of jurisdictions that have implemented policies or have recommended policies that mirror some of the Objectives and Measures adopted by the Justice System Reform Governing Board in February to improve the administration of justice in Cuyahoga County.

In Brooklyn, New York, an Early Case Assessment Bureau team assesses all misdemeanor and felony arrest charges within several hours of arrest.

In this time frame, assistant district attorneys and paralegals interview crime victims, witnesses, and police officers and gather additional evidence.

The attorneys then decide the appropriate course of action to take before arraignment. (similar to JSR Objective 7: Develop a Central Booking system.)

A 2007 Vera Institute of Justice report proposed many improvements for the New Orleans criminal justice system including recommending that “the courts, the public defender, and the district attorney should create a court appearance that occurs in every case within six days after arrest, which would be the time by which initial triage decisions are made.” (similar to JSR Objective 2: Prompt first appearance.)

A 2009 National Center for State Courts report on improving criminal caseflow management in the Alaska Superior Court recommended that the court “agree to be accountable for its performance in criminal cases through appropriate performance measures.” (similar to JSR Objective 11: Provide annual statistical report(s) that track progress by 12/31/13.)

My objective in referencing similar efforts in other jurisdictions is not to point out how far Cuyahoga County has to go or that there are inherent flaws in the system. The point is that other jurisdictions have tackled some of the same challenges.

You will hear more about exemplary felony approaches nationwide today during the hour-long session that begins at 1:45.

No matter the jurisdiction, a Justice Management Institute primer from 2000 on improving felony caseflow process cites ten common elements of successful programs.

Leadership of the chief judge – or as we label them in Ohio, the administrative judge – of a trial court is “important and whose visible commitment to effective management of felony cases is essential.”

“Meaningful goals – especially time standards that shape expectations with respect to the maximum length of time appropriate for particular types of cases, from inception to disposition for specific stages of the process – are integral.”

Court and justice system leaders “will place a high premium on ensuring that timely and accurate information is available, both for case-level decision-making and for overall system management.”  This is a system that must be data driven…keeping accurate numbers is the entire key to measurement of success…Numbers (days, dollars, and cases) tell you whether you have a problem and then can tell you if you’re making headway in solving that problem. 

“Good communications and broad consultation – within the trial court, within the other organizations involved in the process, and between trial court leaders and key institutional actors such as the prosecutor, public defender, private bar leaders, and law enforcement officials – are essential if a program is to succeed.”

Fair, efficient and realistic caseflow management procedures including “realistic charging by prosecutors and meaningful court events,”

Having the commitment of at least a “substantial core group” of judges and senior justice system practitioners is a key element.

Staff involvement: “It is essential that line staff members – including courtroom clerks, central staff responsible for tasks such as data entry and file management, and judges’ administrative assistants – understand what they are expected to do.”

Education and training are essential to familiarize law enforcement officials, judges, court staff members, prosecutors, defense lawyers, probation officers, and others involved in the process with the purposes and fundamental concepts of felony caseflow management.”

Mechanisms for Accountability: “It is important for jurisdictions to establish clear lines of responsibility and authority for management of the cases during the stages for which each of these entities have primary responsibility.”

Backlog Reduction and/or Inventory Control: “Developing plans for elimination of the backlog will be an important part of any plan” and “control of the inventory of pending cases should be a continuing concern to prevent the buildup of a backlog.”

Regardless of where this reform effort leads and how long it takes to get there, this is an effort worth undertaking.

I applaud Cuyahoga County for sitting down together to find the best approach to make improvements in this area. This is hard work, the roll-up-your sleeves kind that will be frustrating at times. I encourage you to keep the end goal in mind throughout.

Please know that the resources the Supreme Court can bring to bear to help you through this transition are at your disposal. We will help in any way we can. Just ask.

Thank you.