The courts are the pivot on which the criminal justice system turns. Two decisions the courts make are crucial to the criminal process: whether a person is to be convicted of a crime, and what is to be done with him if he is. The courts have great power over the lives of the people brought before them. At the same time the limits of this power are carefully laid out by the Constitution, by statute, and by elaborate procedural rules, for the courts are charged not only with convicting the guilty but with protecting the innocent.Maintaining a proper balance between effectiveness and fairness has always been a challenge to the courts. In a time of increasing crime, increasing social unrest, and increasing public sensitivity to both, it is a particularly difficult challenge. An inquiry into the performance of America's criminal courts, therefore, must of necessity examine both their effectiveness and their fairness, and proposals for improving their operations must aim at maintaining or redressing the essential equilibrium between those two qualities.
This report does not purport to be a comprehensive survey of American criminal courts or of the activities of the men and women who work in and around them: judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, probation officers, and other court officials.On the contrary, it confines itself to those parts of the court system and those aspects of the criminal process that the Commission has found to be the most in need of reform.It dwells at length on urban courts and their problems and particularly on urban lower courts. It is in the cities that crime rates are highest. It is in the cities that poor and ignorant defendants who most need protection are concentrated. It is in the cities that courts have so enormous a volume of cases that they are able neither to mete out prompt and certain justice nor to give defendants the full protection that they should have.
The report considers in detail two important nontrial aspects of the criminal process: the prosecutor's charge decision and the negotiated plea of guilty. These administrative and largely invisible procedures now determine the disposition of a majority of criminal cases in many courts, particularly in the cities. The re