Criminal Disposition Time for Child-Sexual-Abuse Cases in a Large Urban Court

By Walsh, Wendy A.; Steelman, David C. | Justice System Journal, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Criminal Disposition Time for Child-Sexual-Abuse Cases in a Large Urban Court


Walsh, Wendy A., Steelman, David C., Justice System Journal


This study compared criminal disposition time for child-sexual-abuse cases and other felonies in the Arizona Superior Court for Maricopa County. Of those resolved, the majority of both child-sexual-abuse cases (59 percent) and felony cases (85 percent) were disposed within the target time frame of 180 days. However, nearly one in three child-sexual-abuse cases took more than two years to reach disposition or were pending. The average pending time for child-sexual-abuse cases were two-and-one-half times that for all pending felonies in general.

Excessive delay in case processing has been one of the most persistent policy issues for courts during the past three decades (Steelman, 2008). The limited child-mal-treatment research in this area also suggests that criminal court delay is common among child-sexual-abuse cases (Gray, 1993; Smith and Elstein, 1993; Martone, Jaudes, and Cavins, 1996; Stroud, Martens, and Barker, 2000; Walsh et al., 2008). This is especially concerning because children who have to wait more than five months for resolution in criminal proceedings have increased depression and anxiety compared to children whose cases are resolved within five months, controlling for other variables (Runyan et al., 1988). The developmental limits and vulnerabilities of child victims, thus, add a heightened urgency to the need to resolve cases with as few delays as possible. Despite the recognition that delay in case disposition time is prob-lematic, no study we are aware of has compared disposition time for child-sexual-abuse cases and other felonies in the same court system or has explored the reasons for and impact of continuances (court-ordered rescheduling of a trial or other court event at the request of a case participant or on the court's own initiative in the interest of justice) on the disposition time for child-sexual-abuse cases. The purpose of the current study is to explore these understudied issues.

Case Disposition Time. Because of concerns about the length of time it takes to resolve criminal cases, in 1983 the Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA) adopted case-processing-time standards for all cases; in 1984 the American Bar Association (ABA) proposed similar standards, with revisions in 1992 (Dodge and Pankey, 2003). The ABA standards recommend that 98 percent of felony cases be disposed (e.g., entry of guilty plea, verdict, or dismissal) within 180 days of arrest and that all felony cases be disposed within one year of arrest (ABA, 1992). Information reported by state court administrative offices to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) indicated that at least thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia now have adopted felony time standards (NCSC CPTS Database, 2010). Yet multi-court studies consistently indicate that some courts, such as the superior court in Maricopa County, do a better job than others at speedily resolving cases (Church et al., 1978; Mahoney et al., 1988; Hewitt, Gallas, and Mahoney, 1990; Goerdt, Lomvardias, and Gallas, 1991; Goerdt et al., 1995; Ostrom and Hanson, 2000; Steelman, Goerdt, and McMillan, 2004). Although some delays may be acceptable and even functional for some cases, repeated and extreme delays are concerning and may be evidence of illfunctioning systems (Luskin, 1978; Nardulli, 1978; Neubauer, 1983).

Child Sexual Abuse. The handful of studies on this topic show that it takes, on average, one year and often two years or longer for child-sexual-abuse cases to reach a criminal resolution (Gray, 1993; Smith and Elstein, 1993; Martone, Jaudes, and Cavins, 1996; Stroud, Martens, and Barker, 2000; Walsh et al., 2008). In our earlier research with one court system, only 20 percent of cases were resolved within the 180day American Bar Association target, whereas 30 percent of cases took more than two years (Walsh et al., 2008). This appears to be significantly longer than the length of time to resolve other types of felony cases in general, although capital cases and other serious felonies have times to disposition equal to or longer than those for child-sexual-abuse cases. …

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