Generally, courtroom workgroups are considered to consist of the criminal prosecutor, criminal defense attorney, and judge. Neubauer and Fradella (2019) also include the probation officer in the definition, though this position will typically not have as much authority as the other three. The prosecutor is responsible for bringing and presenting the case against the accused, gathering relevant information, and organizing it to present a convincing account of the defendant’s guilt. With that said, their primary goal is to ensure that justice is served in the end rather than that the defendant is punished. As such, they actively investigate the matter, decide the specific charges, and argue the case in court to determine the truth.
The criminal defense attorney represents the defendant and works to ensure that the criminal justice system does not mistreat them. They assist the person during arrests and investigations by reminding them of their constitutional rights and ensuring that these provisions are honored. To that end, they review the process and identify any potentially illegal actions, evidence from which is inadmissible at court. It is also the defense attorney’s job to prepare for the trial and represent their client throughout it.
As a part of this process, they discuss potential plea bargains with the prosecutor and advise their client on whether they should take them.
Lastly, the judge enters the process when the preparations are complete, and cases go to court. They control the court’s proceedings and are the arbiters of impartiality within it. To that end, they hear the evidence of both parties and assess its credibility. The judge also chooses whether to accept a plea bargain negotiated between the prosecutor and the attorney and accepted by the defendant. At the end of the case, the judge weighs the arguments of both parties and makes the final ruling on the matter. They have the highest authority of all the members of the courtroom work group, and their decisions are generally final unless appealed in a higher court of law.
With that said, the other members of the group can still influence the decisions of the court. According to Neubauer and Fradella (2019), judges will usually accept bail recommendations by prosecutors, plea agreements, and sentences as recommended by the probation officer because these parties can legally obstruct the proceedings otherwise. Judges are under pressure to resolve cases quickly and appropriately due to their high workload, and delaying measures can be effective at changing their behavior. With that said, judges can also similarly influence the other members, and ultimately, it is in the best interest of all parties to remain on friendly terms.
Judge Decision Process
While the job of the judge is to ensure that the law is put into effect and that justice is served, they are human and subject to various influences and mistakes. Alarie and Green (2017) highlight four different models of judicial decision-making: legal, attitudinal, strategic, and labor-market. As its name indicates, the first theory assumes that the judge is motivated by the law and strives to follow it as closely as possible. They can review precedents, statutes, and the Constitution and interpret their provisions to apply them to the case to reach a decision. While this model is likely the closest to the formal description of the judge’s profession, the scope and breadth of the law make it difficult to apply in practice.
The attitudinal model suggests that a judge’s views inform their opinions on the details of a particular case. Judges follow the law, but there are ambiguous details in many cases that can be open to interpretation, particularly in precedent-setting cases. As a result, whether consciously or not, they would make a decision that aligns with their overall views. This model explains why panels of judges often do not make unanimous decisions. However, it is challenging to apply in practice to analyze a judge’s decisions because of the wide variety of personality traits that can influence a decision. As such, while it may be used to explain a decision post-factum, the model is not effective at predicting judge behavior.
The strategic and labor-market models both assume that external influences play a substantial role in decision-making. In the former, the judge considers the likely reactions of other interested parties and make a decision based on their relationship with those people. The decision to agree to a courtroom work group member’s requests to maintain a friendly relationship and avoid delays that would damage one’s standing with other judges is an example. Lastly, in the labor-market model, the judge weighs the pros and cons associated with each possible decision and try to choose the most beneficial one. Overall, a judge will typically apply all four consideration models to some extent, but there may also be other additional factors that influence the decision.
While the four models are highly challenging to apply, especially when combined and applied to a real-world scenario, it is possible to find patterns in a court’s decisions. Ulmer and Johnson (2017) find regional differences in guideline deviation between different courts and associate them with factors such as caseloads, minority population size, and religion. Overall, particular regions form a specific social climate that pressures judges and shapes their decisions in a particular matter. These considerations can be used to establish a baseline for judicial decisions that can then be modified based on the judge’s traits.
Trial Penalties and Plea Agreements
Plea agreements are primarily intended to lighten the caseload on the courts by allowing both sides to make particular concessions for a quicker resolution. The defendant pleading guilty is a common form of this practice that reduces the need to investigate and review the evidence and enables the court to move to determine the person’s punishment. In return, the defendant will typically have the sentence reduced through the dismissal of some charges or a favorable recommendation from the prosecutor. Ideally, justice would be served in the arrangement, and the court’s time and money would be saved. As such, the idea of plea bargaining has become widespread in American courts.
However, there now exists the threat of the practice becoming the norm rather than the exception. It expresses itself through the form of the trial penalty, where the demand to go to court is punished with disproportionately harsh sentences, presumably as retribution for the burden that the defendant puts on the court. Kelly and Pitman (2018) discuss examples such as a six-month sentence with a deal or the threat of a twenty-five year prison time through the court and note that the Supreme Court does not consider the practice a violation of due process, agreeing with the addition of extra charges when the defendant refuses a plea deal.
In theory, the ability of plea deals to reduce the severity of the punishment that the defendant receives is critical to their existence. Without it, people would overwhelmingly choose to go to court for the chance, however small, that they would be able to leave it free. However, in its current form, plea deals leave the defendant at a massive disadvantage, as indicated by the example above. The prosecutor effectively threatens the defendant with the prospect of a life-ruining sentence, and the judge is sympathetic to the former rather than impartial because the due process uses up their time. As a result, the criminal justice system is effectively unjust and biased against the people who come in contact with it.
Ultimately, the plea bargain system is a temporary solution that relieves the excessive burden on the courts and allows them to process cases promptly. Its current high rates of usage indicate that the framework is not designed to handle the caseload that is present in real situations. As such, reform that addresses current concerns and enables courts to operate normally and handle cases efficiently in their current numbers is required. However, the commonplace adoption of plea bargaining as such a change is not legitimate because it strongly encourages defendants to forfeit their constitutional right to a trial. Some form of change that will maintain this rule while relieving the burden on courts is necessary.
The Appellate Process
In the U.S. criminal justice system, as in many different frameworks worldwide, defendants who lose a case may appeal to a higher authority. According to Stooksbury, Scheb, and Stephens (2017), this right is not guaranteed by the Constitution, but Congress has provided that people who plead not guilty may have their case reviewed by the U.S. Courts of Appeals if they are convicted, and in specific situations, defendants who plead guilty may do so, as well. The purpose of such a process is to ensure that the court that made the initial ruling has followed due process and made a just decision. To that end, appeals cases proceed differently than normal criminal justice court trials.
The primary purpose of an appellate case is to determine whether there were any mistakes made in the decision-making process by the judge. The defendant may appeal a guilty verdict, but the prosecution may not appeal the opposite decision. According to Stooksbury et al. (2017), to that end, panels of judges sit in courts of appeals and discuss the specific concerns presented by the appealing party. If the appeals court identifies a substantial and reversible error, it dismisses the judgment and returns the case to the lower court for a retrial. Smaller and technical errors are generally not considered sufficient grounds to reverse the ruling.
The appellate courts do not conduct trials, as doing so is outside of their jurisdiction. This fact is the reason why they return the case to the original court if they find errors rather than make a different judgment. To that end, they also do not hear evidence in the same manner as that of the trial court. Instead, they receive documents known as briefs from both parties that contain legal arguments and law citations. Sometimes, they will also receive briefs from other parties and conduct oral hearings to establish specific facts more clearly. The decision of a court of appeals will typically be final unless the case is sent back or further appealed to the Supreme Court by a party in the case. However, the Supreme Court does not have to review the case and decides whether to do so by requiring the support of four of its members.
There are some special cases in appeals, such as habeas corpus and interlocutory appeals. The former is intended to permit the victims of unlawful imprisonment to have their concerns heard in a higher court. Stooksbury et al. (2017) note that the situation around the provision is controversial and complicated, covering a wide variety of aspects, but its general purpose is to let the defendant partially bypass state courts and raise issues in the federal court. Interlocutory appeals are targeted at specific aspects of a court ruling while the case is still proceeding. They are governed by specific and restrictive rules that vary by state, which contributes to their overall rarity.
Problem-Solving Courts and Other Specializations
Some varieties of cases, particularly those associated with substance abuse, mental issues, and similar complicating factors, are particularly prevalent in the criminal justice system. Traditional punishments may not be effective for such situations because the person’s motivations make deterrence ineffective and complicate reformation. As such, the concept of problem-solving courts that would focus on treatment and rehabilitation rather than punishment has emerged. They are intended to focus on specific behavioral health disorders and address the specific issues associated with them. In doing so, they can address the broader societal concerns while partially relieving the U.S.’s mass incarceration issue by introducing alternate options. Overall, the approach should be effective if these courts can develop an effective framework for addressing the specific issues of their target populations.
Due to the variety of behavioral disorders that currently exist, one court would not be able to handle the diverse circumstances of the people affected. To that end, DeMatteo, Heilbrun, Thornewill, and Arnold (2019) highlight drug and mental health courts as well as a variety of less prevalent ones such as courts for veteran treatment and DUIs. Due to the prevalence of such offenses and the circumstances surrounding them, which can often be outside of a judge’s scope of knowledge, these courts have the potential to succeed. Moreover, by taking on broadly similar and simple cases, they can reduce the workload on traditional courts, which is currently excessive. However, they should be carefully monitored by traditional courts to ensure that they do not treat their defendants too lightly since they still commit offenses regardless of the motivations.
As indicated by the name, problem-solving courts aim to address a particular issue, many of which are endemic rather than prevalent worldwide. As such, numerous varieties exist locally, and it is challenging to propose some entirely new type of court. Moreover, the need for a particular problem-solving institution is determined by the needs of the community in question. Siddiki, Espinosa, and Heikkila (2019) highlight the application of the original drug court model to issues such as juvenile crime, homelessness, and domestic violence. Depending on the problems prevalent in a particular area, one of the models that have succeeded in various areas across the U.S. can be applicable. The criminal justice system representatives only have to be motivated to analyze and resolve the issue.
Alarie, B., & Green, A. J. (2017). Commitment and cooperation on high courts: A cross-country examination of institutional constraints on judges. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
DeMatteo, D., Heilbrun, K., Thornewill, A., & Arnold, S. (2019). Problem-solving courts and the criminal justice system. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Kelly, W. R., & Pitman, R. (2018). Confronting underground justice: Reinventing plea bargaining for effective criminal justice reform. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Neubauer, D. W., & Fradella, H. F. (2019). America’s courts and the criminal justice system (13th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage.
Siddiki, S., Espinosa, S., & Heikkila, T. (eds.). (2019). Contextualizing compliance in the public sector: Individual motivations, social processes, and institutional design. New York, NY: Routledge.
Stooksbury, K. E., Scheb, J. M. II, & Stephens, O. H. Jr. (eds.). (2017). Encyclopedia of American civil rights and liberties (2nd ed.). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Ulmer, J. T., & Johnson, B. D. (2017). Organizational conformity and punishment: Federal court communities and judge-initiated guidelines departures. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 107(2), 253-292.