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Focus Areas

Court Systems and Programs

Assessing the administration of justice through evaluation of court programs and court system case processing.

The magnitude of criminal cases brought to state courts exceeds available resources, making it necessary to understand how court systems and programs can be made fair, efficient, and effective, while considering the interactions with, needs, and outcomes of victims, defendants, and the community. In addition to caseload pressures, several other contemporary challenges threaten court systems’ delivery of impartial justice. For example, an under-resourced and over-burdened court system necessitates the use of plea bargaining to expedite case processing. This calls for expanding our understanding of the decision-making of prosecutors, defense counsel, and judges by studying the factors that seed plea offers and exploring the impact of pleas on defendants and public safety. Additionally, prosecutor-led diversion programs, problem-solving courts, and other alternatives to incarceration approaches have been used in many jurisdictions to reduce involvement in the system by individuals with behavioral health and other needs. While these types of programs have been widely adopted based on positive results from numerous high-quality outcome studies, more remains to be understood about how to implement and operate evidence-based programs with fidelity to ensure success for participants. Further, many court systems have turned to technology, like integrated case management systems, video conferencing, and digital evidence, to improve efficiency and effectiveness. Yet, there is much to learn about the use of new technologies, including how to identify the right technological solution for any given problem and assess efficacy, cost relative to benefit, the need for staff training or hiring specialized staff, and the need for new policies and procedures to ensure proper use that honors constitutional protections. Advances in forensic science hold similar promise, as well as a host of challenges that deserve study, from prosecutors’ ability to properly interpret and convey forensic evidence and defense counsels’ ability to effectively refute or challenge this evidence to juries’ ability to consume this evidence. Finally, no investigation of these pressing issues, including the emerging issue of court systems’ reliance on fees and fines, would be complete without integrating an assessment of racial bias or disparity in court systems’ policy, practice, or programming.  

Experts in the RTI Center for Courts and Corrections Research have a long-standing history of conducting rigorous evaluations of problem-solving courts and research to understand court system operation, needs, and best practices. Through web-based surveys, interviews and focus groups with system stakeholders, and legal and policy reviews, our skilled research team assesses the operation of court systems, as well as implementation and fidelity of court programs, documenting processes and developing knowledge for improvement and sustainability. Our team is also adept at designing and successfully administering randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental studies to determine the impact of court programs on participants and cost-effectiveness of these programs. To this research, our team brings substantial expertise in preparing and linking complex administrative data and state-of-the art analytic methods. Our expert team integrates a racial equity lens with our scientific approach to build knowledge about court system policies, practices, and programs that improve the fair administration of justice.

Criminal Justice Priority Needs Initiative

The Criminal Justice Priority Needs Initiative is designed to assist the National Institute of Justice in identifying and assessing the highest priority needs across the justice system and potential solutions to those needs. Since 2014, RTI has convened expert panels to identify the needs of court system, both general and specific aspects of the court system and evolving technology. The Courts Advisory Panel (2015) identified the major issues facing courts today in five functional areas: case preparation, court information management, support for court hearings, facilities management, and people management. Ongoing needs assessment activities have led to other court system advisory workshops to assess  

  • the effects of technological change on the protection of constitutional rights,
  • the impact of electronic communication device use on the right to a fair trial,
  • prosecutor priorities and challenges, and
  • court appearance through telepresence: benefits and challenges.