Heavy Caseloads and Delay

From an administrative standpoint, the overriding problem in both federal and state courts is the high volume of cases. More than 300,000 civil and criminal cases were filed in federal district courts in 1997, with criminal filings reaching their highest levels since the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment on prohibition in 1933. Similarly, the caseload in state courts is increasing. In 1995, state courts handled 86 million new cases, including 51 million traffic and ordinance violations, 20 million civil cases, 13 million criminal cases, and 2 million juvenile cases.

Spurred on by tougher drug laws, court caseloads have been steadily increasing. Almost two‐thirds of the state courts are consistently behind on their dockets. Excessive caseloads cause delays in processing cases. When concern about speeding up case processing overpowers concern about protecting defendants' rights, justice is denied. In recent years, judicial administration has concentrated on how to reduce caseloads and how to speed up case flow.

Reducing caseloads

Court caseloads can be reduced in several ways. By removing certain types of cases from the court dockets, caseloads can be made more manageable. Diverting public drunkenness cases, traffic violations, and drug possession cases from major trial courts to special courts can shrink caseloads. Drug courts are a good example. In searching for alternatives for the traditional handling of drug possession cases, a county attorney in Florida invented a way to reduce the strain on Florida's trial courts while providing treatment to persons with drug‐dependency problems. Janet Reno, who later served as U.S. Attorney General in the Clinton administration, established drug courts to cope with a growing number of drug cases. Following Reno's lead, many other states have created similar courts. Most drug courts use court‐monitored drug treatment for first‐time drug offenders instead of prison or probation. The main goals of drug courts are to

  1. Reduce drug use and recidivism (return‐to‐crime) rates.

  2. Alleviate pressure on nondrug caseloads.

Evaluations show the combination of drug treatment and urinalysis monitoring, compared with probation, reduces repeat incarcerations among offenders convicted of first‐time drug possession.

The overworked lower courts can be aided by removing private civil disputes to mediation. Private disagreements between spouses, friends, neighbors, and associates clog the courts. Mediation programs involving divorce, consumer affairs, and landlord‐tenant disputes exist throughout the United States and are intended to promote the goals of efficiency and effectiveness. Supporters claim that mediation centers not only alleviate the heavy caseloads of lower courts but also provide more lasting solutions to the underlying causes of civil disputes.

Speeding up court processing

Case backlog and trial delay are problems associated with case overloads. The seriousness of the backlog and the length of delay depend on the court. Delay jeopardizes the defendant's right to a speedy trial. Long pretrial incarcerations could pressure some defendants into pleading guilty to crimes they didn't commit. Then, too, delays erode the public's confidence in the judicial process. The public expects swift, certain justice rather than long, drawn‐out processing of cases.

To enforce the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial, Congress enacted the Speedy Trial Act of 1974. It sets time standards for two stages in the federal process: 30 days are allowed from arrest to indictment, and 70 days from indictment to trial. All 50 states have speedy trial laws, which are designed to spare defendants from enduring unnecessary delays, especially if they are incarcerated prior to their trials.

One of the more promising means of increasing the efficiency of judicial administration in the courts is the use of technology. Dozens of automation projects are underway in courts across the United States, including new systems for jury administration. Imaging, Internet and Web technologies, satellite videoconferencing, and other cutting‐edge technologies may improve routine court operations. Electronic alternatives offer promise for streamlining court administration, saving time and money, and improving the accessibility of the courts.