Courts short of timeliness goals

2001 guidelines urge faster clearing of cases

December 03, 2007|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,SUN REPORTER

Although they have shown improvement, most of Maryland's circuit courts still fall short of the ambitious standards set in 2001 to complete cases in a timely manner.

Of the state's 24 jurisdictions, four met the goal of completing 98 percent of their civil cases in 18 months, and six met the goal of completing 98 percent of their criminal cases in six months, according to reports for fiscal year 2006.

Statewide, the number of cases meeting the standards since 2001 has risen 3 percentage points for criminal cases and 8 percentage points for civil cases.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions incorrectly reported how the Howard County Circuit Court designates three-hour time blocks when scheduling hearings. The blocks of time are used for domestic relations hearings, not for criminal hearings.

But judicial officials say the emphasis on case processing has helped cut deep backlogs and has reduced the number of postponements that have delayed justice for Marylanders.

"I think we've made great progress," said State Court Administrator Frank Broccolina. "We've seen that people pay attention, and they work at improving the judicial process."

Insufficient resources, the timeliness of other agencies and caseloads are all factors, Broccolina and judges say. He said the standards should serve as an "aspirational goal."

Compliance in 2006 with the standards ranged from 72 percent in Harford to 100 percent in Allegany for criminal cases, and from 67 percent in Harford to 99 percent in Allegany and Queen Anne's for civil cases. Baltimore City met the goal 80 percent of the time in criminal cases and 90 percent in civil cases. Baltimore County's rates were 89 percent for criminal and 91 percent for civil cases.

The statewide average in 2006 was 90 percent for criminal cases and 89 percent for civil cases. In 2001, the average was 87 percent for criminal cases and 81 percent for civil cases.

The standards were created after Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, charged a judicial council in the late 1990s with improving trial court performance, Broccolina said.

The courts did their first case assessments in 2001, and since then have submitted annual reports. Although there are no penalties if the standards are not met, courts are required to base their plans for the next year on the annual assessments, Broccolina said.

Because of the assessments, courts have been able to pinpoint areas that need work. In Howard County, for example, the Circuit Court now designates three-hour blocks for criminal hearings, rather than an entire day as was previously done, Administrative Judge Diane O. Leasure said.

In Anne Arundel County, the court does not set a trial date for a case until all the preliminary steps required for the case are completed, Court Administrator Robert G. Wallace said. Time standard dates are also stamped on each case file.

In Baltimore City Circuit Court, which Broccolina said handles more child-welfare cases than the rest of the state combined, the backlog for termination of parental-rights cases has been cut in half in the past two years. After realizing from an annual assessment that much of the delay in such cases occurred because of an inability to find the parents, the state hired someone who does just that, Broccolina said.

Baltimore City also centralized the criminal docket to make it easier for people to find out where hearings will be held, said Judge John M. Glynn, who is in charge of the criminal docket.

For the circuit courts, standards exist for seven case types: criminal; civil; domestic relations; juvenile delinquency; children in need of assistance; children in need of assistance involving shelter; and termination of parental rights.

Each circuit court annually pulls a random sampling of cases in each category to determine how many failed to meet the standard and why.

"That really was the best educational thing that could have happened to the circuit courts," Broccolina said. "I think that overall what this has done for us is it's established a level of accountability."

Certain exceptions - such as completion of a drug treatment program by a defendant or DNA testing - allow time to be suspended when considering compliance with the standards.

In many courts, an administrative judge must review all requests for postponements, which are granted only in extraordinary circumstances. "That was a cultural change for us," Broccolina said.

"People want to feel like they have enough time, but want efficiency," said Richard Shauffler, director of the Research Division for the National Center for State Courts. "Courts are balancing some very serious issues of providing access, fairness, timeliness."

A number of states created time standards after the center published generic recommendations, Shauffler said, and many have tailored them to factor in local resources and delays outside the courts' control.

"In managing courts, like everything else, there's always trade-offs," he said.

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