Settlement Conferences Help Resolve Criminal Cases

Article excerpt

Judge conducted settlement conferences can reduce the time needed to resolve cases while ensuring a balanced outcome.

The Superior Court of Arizona, Maricopa County, is a trial court of general jurisdiction. It is the fifth largest trial court in the United States, consisting of 94 judges and 52 commissioners, of which 28 judges and 29 commissioners are assigned a criminal calendar. In fiscal year 2006, ending June 30, there were 40,928 criminal cases filed, in addition to 36,691 civil cases, 50,878 family court cases, which, with other types of suits, amounted to 157,956 total case filings. The court normally disposes of almost 92 percent of criminal cases over a 12-month period.

The court has a nationwide reputation as an innovative court.1 Many of the jury reforms of the last 10 years were instituted here, including jurors asking questions of witnesses in both civil and criminal trials, and letting civil jurors (but not criminal jurors) discuss a case before final deliberations as long as all jurors are present in the jury room.2 While this court is not the first court to conduct criminal settlement conferences it is certainly among the very first to do so on a large scale.9

Background

Criminal cases, as in most jurisdictions, take precedence for trial purposes over civil cases, and at times are ready for trial without a sufficient number of criminal judges to handle them. When that occurs, civil judges are assigned criminal trials.

In 1996, certain judges4 on the criminal bench, noticing that many criminal cases that should have resulted in pleas were instead going to trial, and that there was a backlog of criminal cases waiting for trial having to be assigned to civil judges, began to do settlement conferences in criminal cases with the consent of both parties.

In Maricopa County Superior Court, on the civil side, most cases are assigned to volunteer attorneys to conduct a setdement conference before a case may proceed to trial. The assigned attorney reports back to the judge whether the conference resulted in a settlement or not and whether the parties negotiated in good faith. More settlements have been concluded in civil cases than would have been the case without such conferences.

With the history of civil settlement conferences in mind and realizing that only judges should be doing such conferences in criminal cases, these pioneering criminal judges petitioned the Arizona Supreme Court for a rule formally authorizing such conferences.8 In 1997, the Arizona Supreme Court responded favorably, adopting Rule 17.4 (a) for a two-year experimental period. The Court Comment stated: "In adopting a statewide experimental amendment permitting judges to participate in plea negotiations, the court expects that all lawyers-prosecutors and defense counsel alike-will cooperate in the experimental use of this rule, and that judges will avoid coercive behavior of any kind." In 1999, using similar language in its Comment, the court adopted Rule 17.4 (a) as a permanent program and procedure, which provides as follows:

Plea Negotiations. The parties may negotiate concerning, and reach an agreement on, any aspect of the case. At the request of either party, or sua sponte, the court may, in its sole discretion, participate in settlement discussions by directing counsel having the authority to settle to participate in a good faith discussion with the court regarding a non-trial or nonjury trial resolution which conforms to the interests of justice. Before such discussions take place, the prosecutor shall afford the victim an opportunity to confer with the prosecutor concerning a non-trial or nonjury trial resolution, if they have not already conferred, and shall inform the court and counsel of any statement of position by the victim. If the defendant is to be present at any such settlement discussions, the victim shall also be afforded the opportunity to be present and to state his or her position with respect to a non-trial or nonjury trial settlement. …