From the Benches and Trenches Case Management Innovation in a Large, Urban Trial Court: The Critical Importance of Legal Stakeholder Attitudes

Article excerpt

This article, based on research conducted in the Circuit Court of Cook County (Chicago) from June 2006 through March 2007, addresses the challenge of a large, urban felony court in reducing delay through the introduction of a Differentiated Case Management (DCM) system. The research design incorporates an empirical data analysis of caseflow and an opinion survey of over 500 legal stakeholders. While the court demonstrated a positive clearance rate, there was evidence of considerable case delay and backlog in the active pending caseload. In stark contrast, the survey findings indicate a lack of stakeholder awareness of case delay, a low level of acceptance of felony time standards, and a general concern that an expedited pace of case management, through the introduction of a DCM system, might cause injustice. The implications of these findings for the future success of Differentiated Case Management in this court are discussed, as is the relevance of the findings for other jurisdictions interested in improving case management.

If management is about dealing with complexity, then caseflow management in a large, urban felony court presents a unique set of challenges. While the principles of good caseflow management may remain constant across jurisdictions of all sizes, the challenges of implementing a fair and efficient court process in a high-volume felony court increase with the size of the court. The sheer number of cases, multiplicity of relationships, mix of interdependent agencies and organizations, and intense media scrutiny present court administrators in large, urban felony courts with a daunting task. In spite of this, there has never been a better time for high-volume courts to develop a tight, efficient, and, most important, fair caseflow process than the present. As the literature shows, our understanding of caseflow management, the development of standards, and the measurement of caseflow process have all reached a very sophisticated level. At the same time, technological advances have now given high-volume courts the tools with which to create a "level playing field" with other jurisdictions by virtue of the availability of good statistical data reporting that enable even very large courts to monitor and evaluate their complex caseflow processes, practices, and performance.

Cook County has a population of 5.5 million people, making it the second largest county by population in the United States. It funds three public services, including a major urban hospital for the indigent, a Forest Preserve District, and the Circuit Court of Cook County, whose Criminal Division serves the city of Chicago with a population of 2.3 million. In 2006 Cook County faced what was perhaps the greatest fiscal crisis in the history of the county. It needed to reduce a deficit of one-half billion dollars on a total budget of 3 billion dollars. In December, all county operations, including the Circuit Court of Cook County, were asked to cut their budgets by 17 percent (Stroeger, 2007:33). The present research project and the introduction of a new Differentiated Case Management system were implemented during a time of immense financial pressure in the county and within an atmosphere anticipating a very significant reduction in resources and services. The subsequent cuts have been particularly hard on the criminal-justice system.

The Circuit Court of Cook County, the largest unified trial court system in the country, is organized into three major departments and has over 400 full-time judges. The Criminal Division of the County Department has a total of fotry-five full-time judges, thirty-seven of whom are located in the Criminal Court Building. These judges hear only felony cases, handle on average 650 dispositions a year, and account for about 28,000 felony filings a year, making it one of the busiest felony trial courts in the country. The Criminal Court Building sits on a large campus, which houses the original Cook County Jail and ten other jail buildings, which, during the past three years, have had an average daily population of 8,500 to 10,500 inmates, almost all awaiting trial (John Howard Association, 2005-06). …