In Justice Reforms, Court Communities Are Often Overlooked

By Andrea Keckley | December 2, 2022, 8:04 PM EST ·

A senior policy advisor to the National Institute of Justice's Office of Research, Evaluation, and Technology stressed considering the roles of local courtroom communities when legislatures design criminal justice reforms in a study published this week that explores local practices' influence on criminal case processing and sentencing outcomes.

Recent years have seen the passage of criminal justice reforms at multiple levels of government, from the First Step Act in 2018 on the federal level, to New York choosing to amend the state's discovery rules in 2019. But in Courtroom Communities: Criminal Case Processing and Sentencing Reform, author Nancy Merritt says that while reforms may be passed at the state or national level, they are always implemented at a local level. This, her report argues, makes it "inevitable" that reforms "will be implemented with variation in sentencing patterns, sanctions and resource requirements across sites."

"I hope that the article provides readers with an understanding of the need to consider court system dynamics and inter-relationships before implementing reform – and leaves them with an enhanced respect for the potential consequences of designing legislation for symbolic appeal rather than for actual effect," Merritt told Law360 in an emailed statement on Tuesday.

Merritt's report, published on Monday, is the latest of several studies the NIJ has supported in an effort to better understand how courtroom culture affects the way criminal justice reform measures are implemented.

According to the study, the term courtroom community is often used to refer to "the entity within the court system responsible for implementing formal rules of operation — and developing informal rules." Merritt says the community workgroup– people who routinely play a role in courtroom operations and case processing, such as judges, lawyers and clerks– is the core of the courtroom community. The concept of a courtroom community was formally articulated by researchers in the mid-1970s and built upon in subsequent studies.

The courtroom community framework can help explain some of the differences in reform implementation and outcomes across different jurisdictions subject to the same sentencing laws and policies, according to Merritt's report.

"It is important for government and legislative bodies to understand courtroom operations when drafting and passing new legislation and policy," Merritt said. "Legislation that accounts for courtroom dynamics is far more likely to produce the intended effect than is legislation that does not account for courtroom adaptation."

Concerns over inconsistencies between areas subject to the same rules have shown up in controversies as recently as last month, when the Legal Aid Society, the largest provider of public defenders in New York City, called on Queens County District Attorney Melinda Katz to reform her office's evidence-sharing practices.

According to the society, in the time since Albany reformed New York's discovery rules, New York City DAs have implemented electronic sharing practices, with DAs in Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island devising systems that, for the most part, organize evidence by type and include the name of the evidence on documents. But the Legal Aid Society claims that the prosecutors in Queens "do not organize discovery documents in any logical way," leaving defense attorneys to comb through hundreds of discovery documents to figure out what they are and contributing to court delays.

The NIJ said the controversy "describes a clear example of differential reform implementation across courtrooms – as well as differences in how the actors within various courtrooms interact across jurisdictions."

"This is a problem, I think, that can be solved," Diana Nevins, a staff attorney with the Queens trial office at the Legal Aid Society, told Law360 last week. "It just seems to be an issue of the district attorney's office claiming they can't. I don't really find that very persuasive, given that the other boroughs have figured it out."

Albany's work on discovery reform is just one example of state governments trying to amend the way their legal systems operate. But in her report, Merritt says the past half-century of courtroom community and sentencing reform research shows that reform doesn't happen in a vacuum.

"Instead, it is an evolving process affected both directly and indirectly by individuals, organizations and systems operating within the sphere of the local courtroom," she wrote. "These entities — members of the courtroom community — have a vested interest in local court operation and will implement external change in a way that best serves that court."

Merritt listed four internal goals of the courtroom community: reducing uncertainty regarding case outcomes, handling cases expeditiously, maintaining group cohesion and doing justice. She identifies the reduction of uncertainty as the most critical goal since it reduces the expenditure of court resources.

A common way for courts to reduce uncertainty is through plea negotiations. Merritt's report cited a U.S. Department of Justice study estimating that 90% to 95% of criminal cases on the state and federal levels are resolved through plea bargaining. While plea deals can help often overburdened courts resolve cases more quickly, these plea negotiations typically take place behind closed doors without the same degree of transparency that comes with a criminal trial.

But the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers found that defendants charged with a crime who go to trial receive a sentence that is three times longer on average than what they would have received if they accepted a guilty plea. In the face of such risk, pleading out can seem like a defendant's best option.

"There is currently an effort within the criminal justice research community to better understand the role of the prosecutor both in terms of standard case processing and reform implementation," Merritt said. "Given that prosecutors play a major role in implementing any reform, the resultant research findings could significantly alter courtroom adaptation and receptivity to change."

According to Merritt, under courtroom community theory, courtrooms establish what the theory refers to as "going rates for sentencing" in routine case types. While the type of offense, the defendant's criminal record, the aggravating and mitigating circumstances and the strength of the evidence are what typically affects a felony sentence, Merritt wrote that "over time, each court develops an informal sentencing 'shorthand' — it assigns like sentences to like cases through the application of both formal and informal rules, thereby establishing a unique set of informal going rates based on case characteristics and what is deemed acceptable within that particular court system."

Merritt stressed the importance of keeping the dynamics of the courtroom community in mind when crafting reform initiatives.

"Although it may not be possible, or desirable, to institute reforms that are impervious to local manipulation, the importance and role of the courtroom community must be considered in order to craft effective policies and legislation," she wrote.

--Editing by Alex Hubbard.

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