Most people will agree that there is a need for a certain level of efficiency in our criminal justice system, and the new procedures that went into effect in New Jersey on January 1, 2017, are a reflection of that. The fact is that certain cases were languishing in our courts, and many defendants were languishing in county jails until there cases were resolved. This situation created a huge financial burden on the State’s institutions, and also disrupted the lives of many defendants and their families. Something that most people are completely unaware of is that oftentimes, defendants whose cases resolve in their favor still lose income, jobs and homes by being forced to remain in custody for extended periods simply because their cases got bogged down in an overburdened system. The result is an increased burden on society which commences when an unemployed and homeless defendant emerges from custody. Accordingly, there is a certain “need for speed” in resolving criminal cases.
But efficiency comes at a price. Since the new procedures came into effect, many of us – defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges – feel increased pressure to move cases. Problems can result when we lack the time to properly prepare a case because of what has now become an overriding need to meet a deadline. Under the old rules, judges had more discretion to allow counsel time to fully investigate facts, prepare defenses, and do whatever else was necessary to be sure that every aspect of a file was fully vetted. Under the new system, that may or may not be the case. None of us want cases to remain idle or clients to sit in jail with no end in sight but, at the same time, we want to be able to thoroughly prepare cases so that the presentations we make on behalf of clients is as complete as possible. Indeed, this is more than just a simple desire – the real issue is the extent to which our criminal justice system can work efficiently while simultaneously guaranteeing due process rights and constitutional protections. But this begs important, related questions: When is speed really necessary? What areas of the system require improvement? Where can we best use criminal justice resources? One way to respond to these questions is with full, accurate and relatively current data about the system, but to what extent is that available, and who is collecting it?
An organization called “Measures for Justice” or “MFJ”, based in Rochester, New York, recently launched a free data portal designed to collect data about our criminal justice system. Many states, and even counties within states, already collect statistics on their own criminal justice systems. MFJ’s portal appears different than local data collection tools in several significant respects.First, MFJ is an independent, non-partisan group. Further, its data collection portal is not intended solely for criminal justice professionals or legislators. At least at this relatively early stage, MFJ says its portal is intended for everyone including, without limitation, people who work in the system, journalists and authors who write about it, or ordinary citizens who simply want to learn more about the functioning their judicial system. Additionally, the United States has approximately 3,000 counties, and each one has its own court system. MFJ’s portal is designed to collect data from all of them so as to allow comparisons between adjacent counties, similarly situated counties within a given state, or even the entire country. The portal, which can be viewed on the MFJ Website, collects data from various sub-categories within four broad categories or different stages of a criminal case (Crime and Arrest; Pretrial; Case Resolution; and Post-Resolution). Currently, the portal includes data on six states (Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Washington, and Utah). MFJ plans to have as many as 20 states included in the portal by 2020. Unlike most local data collection tools, the portal is open to everybody so anyone with an interest can access its contents at any time.
Relying too heavily on numbers can obscure the fact that the decisions made in our criminal courts affect real people every day. Further, data collected by federal, state and county government officials can, and often is, biased and tainted by politics. At least at this stage, the MFJ portal appears independent, broad-based and fair. It seems to emphasize openness and the need to compare and contrast different county systems from around the nation. Currently, it may be the best way to collect data that can be used to enhance efficiency without compromising constitutional rights because it is non-partisan, public and broad-based. More states – including New Jersey – should at least consider subscribing to it.
Criminal defense attorney James S. Friedman is based in New Brunswick in Middlesex County, New Jersey. Mr. Friedman represents criminal defendants in state and federal courts throughout New Jersey and New York City. If you or someone you know has charges, contact him to discuss your case.