Little is known about how judges, prosecutors, and defense counsel make decisions—whether pretrial release, charging, conviction, or sentencing. These decisions have important implications for people and communities. Some prosecutors are rethinking their decision-making, leading or playing critical roles in systems change initiatives in their communities to reexamine the use of jail and prison, engage the community in problem-solving and policy-setting, and define success by measures other than conviction rates. To be “smart on crime,” prosecutors are looking to evidence-informed strategies, technology-driven intelligence and evidence gathering, and state-of-the art analytic approaches to address pressing crime issues. Like their counterparts in the prosecutor’s office, defense attorneys face overwhelming caseloads yet often lack resources that are on par with prosecutors’ and sufficient time to conduct investigations, properly review discovery material, communicate with clients, and prepare for court. This imbalance compromises the ability of defense attorneys to fulfil their ethical and constitutional responsibility to vigorously advocate for their clients. Innovative case processing strategies used by courtroom actors, including the use of technology, require investigation of their impact on victims, defendants, and the community, and development of feedback loops to inform performance of system stakeholders. Additionally, with increasing awareness of the benefits of evidence-based and evidence-informed practices, there is tremendous need to translate research into practice for courtroom actors. Finally, the need to investigate and address systemic racial disparities in the criminal legal system calls for deep study of policies that govern the practices of courtroom actors.
In the RTI Center for Courts and Corrections Research, we engage with practitioner organizations to assist prosecutors and defense counsel in planning, implementing, and evaluating case processing strategies, including innovative technologies designed to assist investigation and analysis of evidence. Our skilled technical assistance providers help practitioners develop and implement policy grounded in legal and scientific research. A key aspect of our technical assistance approach is the development of learning communities to encourage peer-to-peer knowledge transfer among practitioners. Our research team designs and conducts comprehensive studies of the implementation and impact of approaches, like diversion programs, designed to improve outcomes for justice-involved individuals by linking them to services they need in lieu of a jail stay or criminal conviction.