Introduction – Justice Delayed, Justice Denied

Our Rabbis taught...the sword comes into the world, because of justice delayed and justice denied.
- Pirkei Avot 5:8

Mary Ann Boulden, Charles Ford, and Jackson Sparks have little in common. Mary was a 62-year old mother of 3. She was shot and killed while taking an Uber ride in February 2020, a victim of a triple shooting in Milwaukee’s north side.1 Charles Ford has been in and out of jail in Virginia for years, and was arrested in 2019 after a street fight turned violent.2 Jackson, 8 years old, was marching with his 12-year old brother in the Waukesha, WI Christmas parade when he was struck by a rampaging driver.3 His brother survived, but Jackson unfortunately did not, succumbing to his injuries two days later at a local hospital.

Mary, Charles, and Jackson

What Mary’s family, Charles, and Jackson all have in common is they are victims of court backlogs, which, due to COVID-related shutdowns, are now the largest backlogs in history in many communities across the United States.

Mary was taking an Uber ride home from work in Milwaukee, WI, when the driver asked if he could pick up his girlfriend on the way. According to what the driver told investigators, after picking up his girlfriend a man on the street started shooting – an ex-lover of his girlfriend’s. The driver, his girlfriend, and Mary were all hit. Mary died at the hospital as a result of a gun-shot wound to the head.4

2 years later, due to Milwaukee’s court backlogs, Mary and her family are still waiting for justice. Asked about the impact of the delays, Marvin Clinton, Mary Ann Boulden’s brother, told WTMJ-TV that the case delays are like “prolonging the agony that we have already dealt with.”5

After being arrested for his involvement in a violent street fight, Charles Ford waited nearly a year in jail for a hearing. Ford’s first trial was cut short after two of the jurors contracted COVID, and the rest of the time he sat in jail waiting for Virginia’s court backlogs to clear. By the time he was convicted, he had already served 22 months of a 6 month sentence.6

While serving time in jail, his bills piled up, his credit score dropped, and his fiancée left him. “It destroyed the foundation of everything that I built from before I got locked up,” he said.

8-year old Jackson Sparks was marching with his baseball team in the Waukesha, WI Christmas parade when he was struck by a rampaging driver. The rampaging driver, Darrell Brooks, had been accidentally released from jail after allegedly threatening to kill his nephew and run over his ex-girlfriend. He would go on to drive his SUV through the parade, killing 6 people, including Jackson.

The assigned prosecutor that released Brooks was dealing with an onslaught of cases, and the case management system didn’t keep up. “She did not have access to the risk assessment when she made that decision because it had not yet been uploaded to the case management system,” said Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm.7

How Court Backlogs Impact American Communities

These overwhelming court backlogs affect everyone involved in the justice system: victims, offenders, and even the community.

For victims, the most simple impact from delays in the justice system is that the lack of closure impedes their recovery. Victoria Shanklin, Executive Director of Alaska nonprofit Victims for Justice, says that case backlogs don’t allow victims to move on after the crime. ““It doesn’t allow people to like, move forward or feel like something has been closed or feel like there’s been any type of justice involved.”8 This lack of justice can lead victims to develop mental issues like anxiety, night terrors, and suicidal thoughts.9

For the accused, they may be forced to stay in pre-trial detention for as long, or longer, than the crime they may eventually be sentenced for. As they wait for justice, the obligations they cannot fulfill can make it harder to reintegrate back into society, costing them jobs, relationships, and social capital.10 Worse still, if the accused is innocent, they are unjustly punished with all of these for a crime they didn’t even commit.

Finally, court backlogs impact the broader community. As overwhelmed prosecutors, judges, and public defenders face a rising number of cases, they make mistakes that threaten the safety a community relies on, accidentally releasing inmates,11 or granting bail to dangers to the public, often with deadly consequences. Delays cause defendants to take up more space in jails and law enforcement time, costing the justice system and the taxpayer.12 If the delays in justice continue, they can undermine the faith the public has in the system of justice, undermining public respect for rule of law and threatening the overall safety of the community.

A Short History of Court Backlogs in the United States

For most of history, court backlogs have been one of, if not the most, pervasive problem with America’s court systems.

As far back as 1930, a federal judicial conference report noted that “the congestion in the federal courts….continues to be a major problem.”13 In 1960, the Johnson Administration’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice found that, once again, “ traditional methods of court administration have not been equal to managing huge caseloads.”14

Two different organizations tried to reign in case processing times in the 1980s and the early 1990s. In 1983, The Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA) proposed time standards for both civil and criminal cases.15 For criminal cases, efficient courts would dispose of all cases within 180 days. Yet many courts struggled to meet the standards. In a national study of urban courts conducted in 1987 by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), not a single court met the standard for all felony cases, and some even failed to meet the standard in 80% of cases.16

For civil cases, COSCA’s standard was to resolve the cases within 18 months. Yet in a study of 37 urban trial courts, researchers were only able to identify one court that came close to this standard, resolving 99% of all civil cases in 24 months.17

In 1992, the American Bar Association (ABA) developed a separate set of standards for processing criminal cases, encouraging courts to process 90% of cases within 120 days, 98% within 180 days, and 100% within a year. These relaxed standards were still difficult for courts to follow, with one 9-state study finding that not a single state court met this standard.18

In 2011, the NCSC, ABA, COSCA, the Conference of Chief Justices and the National Association for Court Management developed a more “realistic” set of time standards to drive efficiency in the courts. Yet in a 2016 study by the NCSC, the average time to disposition for misdemeanor cases was 193 days, and the average time to disposition for felony cases was 256 days.19 A different study of 5.3 million civil cases filed in federal district courts since 2000 found that the average termination date was 344 days.20

Daniel McGillis, author of Community Mediation Programs: Developments and Challenges, summarized that, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s courts have long struggled with backlogs:

These [backlog] problems have been chronic in the courts; the analyses of court problems by the Wickersham Commission in 1923 [sic] were remarkably similar in many respects to those of the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice in the late 1960s and to more recent academic studies of the problems confronting the courts.21

However, the government-mandated shutdowns in the early stages of the pandemic drove these backlogs to critical levels.

From a Persistent Problem to a Crisis

It is difficult to find evidence on when, if ever, the United States’ entire court system has ground to a halt. With the exception of an anthrax scare, the U.S. Supreme Court had not shut down since the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918.22 The Georgia Supreme Court hadn’t heard virtual arguments in the court’s 175-year history.23 U.S. courts even remained open during the entirety of the U.S. civil war.24

However, in March 2020, and following the lead of numerous other government agencies, the vast majority of courts in the United States shuttered their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Every single U.S. state suspended some court proceedings, and eventually 36 states suspended court proceedings statewide, with many states not re-opening their courts for over 3 months.25

These restrictions and near-complete shutdowns rocketed the number of cases pending disposition in court systems across the nation. In February 2021, New York City had a backlog of 49,000 criminal cases. Maine had 22,000. The State of Florida requested additional financial assistance for 1.1 million stalled cases.26 As recently as February 2022, King County, Washington had a case backlog of over 5,000 cases.27 In Wisconsin, Milwaukee County Chief Justice Mary Triggiano said “without help, it will take three or more years” to clear her county’s backlog. A Thompson-Reuters survey of court professionals found that the average court’s case backlog increased by 1/3rd.28

There is still little knowledge of the true current, and future, impact of these shutdowns. Victims across the country have been denied the closure that comes when justice is served.29 Criminal defendants have languished in jail for months, and while pretrial detention has been less utilized during the pand30emic,30 many may be detained long past their sentences.31 Across the nation, the homicide rate has spiked, which more than one prosecutor has attributed to delays in justice.32

For Mary Ann Boulden, these backlogs mean her family won’t see justice for years after her murder. For Charles Ford, these backlogs meant he was kept in jail for 16 months past his sentence.33 For Jackson Sparks, whose killer was accidentally released by an overwhelmed assistant district attorney, it meant his story ended at just 8 years old.

While the courts often struggled to deliver speedy justice before the pandemic, several months of shutdowns have turned this struggle into a national crisis.

Aggravated by several months of shutdowns, court backlogs are delaying justice for victims, unfairly punishing the accused, and endangering American communities. A Speedy and Public Trial: Community Solutions to Court Backlogs in the Post-COVID World was written to help community leaders face this critical issue.

Research Scope and Methods

The Challenge

Researching community solutions to court backlogs has been an interesting challenge, in that the solutions we found must have done more than simply eliminate or served to reduce case backlogs, but delivered justice that is as good, or better than that of traditional court processes. After all, every case backlog in America could be eliminated tomorrow if the court simply let all parties go free, and refused to take new cases.

Finding solutions to court backlogs was a balance between efficiency and cost-effectiveness on the one-hand, while also ensuring the solutions served victims, offenders, and protected their communities as much or more than traditional court processes on the other. As the Johnson Administration’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice observed in 1969:

From the beginning of the criminal process to its end, from police work to correctional work, there is a tension between efficiency – protecting the community from crime – and fairness – protecting the rights of individuals. If these opposing pulls are not kept in balance, the process tends to become either excessively arbitrary, perfunctory, and hasty, or excessively deliberate, cumbersome, and dilatory.34

Thus, the research in this report was conducted under a dual mandate. The first, and most important, was to find community solutions that relieved criminal and civil courts of their caseloads and provided that conflict resolution in a manner that is faster and cheaper than that which a similar court process provided. The second, however, was to also find out how these solutions served victims, the accused, and ultimately helped protect the community from harm. It was through this dual lens that we researched community solutions to court backlogs.

Inclusion Criteria

In setting the inclusion criteria for this report, we considered both sides of this mandate, and attempted to find programs that would show significant improvements in both. We ultimately chose three sets of criteria for inclusion in this report. The first was that a program meaningfully advanced justice. While this is a broad claim, we chose two specific statistics to fulfill this criteria. If the program was of a civil nature, such as many community mediation programs, then a majority of participants needed to be satisfied with the outcome. If the program dealt primarily with diverted criminal cases, then the recidivism rate was examined and must be lower than the closest comparable recidivism rate (Table 1).

Table 1 – Recidivism Rate Comparisons
Case Study Recidivism Rate Comparable Recidivism Rate
Longmont Community Justice Partnership 10% after one year from 2001-2008 Colorado Division of Youth Services 2004-2008: 32%35
Restorative Justice Mediation Program 8.5% after one year in 2019 (parent survey) California Division of Juvenile Justice youth re-conviction rate: 55.5%36
CADA Teen Court 8-15% after one year 2012-2015 California Division of Juvenile Justice youth re-conviction rate: 55.5%37

The second set of criteria was that the program advanced justice faster than comparable court processes (Table 2). Given the complexities of determining state-by-state case processing times, we used the national average processing times for federal civil cases (the most recent average we are aware of is 417 days38), misdemeanor cases (156 days) and felony-level cases (256 days). We also took note of the cost per case, however with little national or local data to compare, it is difficult to determine whether these programs are also cheaper than traditional justice approaches.

Table 2 – Case Processing Time Comparisons
Case Study Case Processing Time Average Percent of similar cases Comparable Case Processing Time average
Dispute Resolution Center of Thurston County 35 days 46% of civil cases in Thurston County, WA39 417 days
New York Peace Institute 45 days 417 days
Longmont Community Justice Partnership <60 days 7-9% of misdemeanor criminal cases in Boulder County, CO40 156 days
Restorative Justice Mediation Project 30-60 days 4-6% of juvenile delinquency cases in San Diego County, CA41 156 days
CADA Teen Court 45 days 48%+ of juvenile delinquency cases in Santa Barbara County, CA42 156 days

Finally, as our mission is driving community solutions, each of the programs had to meet an additional two standards. First, every program had to be entirely voluntary, with no clients, litigants, victims or offenders required to go through the process. Secondly, the program had to offer its services either for no-cost or below market rates. Thirdly, each program had to demonstrate at least 50% community support, calculated by combining voluntary donations, the value of volunteer hours, and fees for services. This final measure of community support also helps verify the efficacy of a program – if volunteers and volunteer donors are engaged, it is yet another indicator that the program is successful.

Our Methodology

From that lens, we started by identifying every active nonprofit in the United States with programs that helped parties resolve conflicts. We utilized internet searches, online databases, and the National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities (NTEE) codes I01 – I99.

We were able to identify 290 nonprofits with programs that helped parties resolve conflicts. We verified the active status of each of those organizations with the Internal Revenue Service’s Tax-Exempt Organization Search (TEOS) and their state’s Secretary of State business search, and we were able to verify the active status of 199 organizations.

After we identified active nonprofits with programs dealing with conflict resolution, we categorized their programs by major approach. We reviewed the relevant literature where possible, and as authoritative a source as possible where no literature existed, to define each approach, their history, how they work, and their benefits and drawbacks over traditional court processes

Through this research we were able to identify 8 potential pre-trial solutions, Community Mediation, Restorative Conferencing, Sentencing Circles, Victim-Offender Dialogue, Teen Courts, Arbitration, Conflict Coaching, and Accountability Boards. We reached out to 139 organizations, at least 10 nonprofit organizations who utilized each solution where possible, and all of them if not, of which 46 responded, and we evaluated 26 for this report. Sentencing Circles are not included in this report because significant empirical data does not support the effectiveness of these circles. Arbitration, conflict coaching, and accountability boards are not included because no program that used these approaches passed our evaluation.

Finally, we evaluated each nonprofit program to verify their impact data and community support. We requested program, impact and funding data for each nonprofit program and interviewed staff to gather qualitative data about each program’s impact. We then evaluated this data to ensure that the programs were likely to be either faster or cheaper than traditional courts, and that they were community-supported. The organizations featured in our case studies are those that responded to our inquiry, passed our evaluation, and gave us the data we requested in time for this report to be published.

Research Limitations

There are several limits to our research that are important to acknowledge. First, because there are nonprofits that have conflict resolution programs alongside other services, and the NTEE database only allows for one classification, there may be general service nonprofits with active conflict resolution programs that we were unable to identify and did not include in our research.

Second, because most of the nonprofits we interviewed had to limit or reduce services when the courts shut down or limited services, the impact data for each case study in this report is from 2019 or earlier. We verified that each program was still active at the time of our interviews, but most were running with reduced staff, or capacity. Because most states and court systems have returned to in-person proceedings and lifted their lockdowns, we believe pre-pandemic data provides the clearest picture on how these solutions can help communities recover from court backlogs.

Third, while we have verified the case study data to the best of our ability, the accuracy and recency of case study data depends on each nonprofit organization’s data collection practices and approach. Case studies should be taken as examples of how a particular solution works in a community, rather than rigorous statistical analyses.

It is also worth noting that, to protect the confidentiality of conflict resolution processes and the privacy of those involved in conflicts, the names of parties in impact stories may have been changed and certain details have been omitted.

How to Read this Report

We took a broad approach when researching community solutions to court backlogs to help you choose the solution that works best for your community’s justice system, stakeholders, and population. This means we identified solutions that intervened in conflicts at any pre-trial stage, from conflicts that have not made it to court to conflicts that are diverted by court officers. Our solutions address all kinds of cases, from civil to criminal, and many kinds of audiences, including families and individuals, juveniles and adults, and victims and criminal offenders.

If there was a community solution that in a significant way served to reduce court caseload, we strove to include it in this report. Instead of ICS deciding, from our ivory tower, what solutions will and won’t work, we wrote this report to provide you with the broadest possible array of solutions to court backlogs in your community.

In this report, there are 4 solutions: Community Mediation, Restorative Conferencing, Victim-Offender Dialogue, and Teen Court. Each of these solutions includes a history of that approach, how the process usually works, and the benefits and drawbacks of each solution for the various kinds of cases your court system faces.

Because the benefits of each solution can be varied, we split the benefits of each solution into three different impact areas. Short-term benefits means the benefits of that solution on participants while they are in the program. Long-term benefits means the benefits participants experience after they exit the program. In this case, that might be a greater sense of self-esteem or a better restitution rate after the program has completed. Finally, community benefits are benefits to people who did not participate in the program, but still benefit. These benefits include a reduction of court backlogs, but may also include fewer police calls, reduced future crimes, and reduced incarceration costs.

Each solution also has a case study, a nonprofit program we identified as an effective example of that solution in action in a community. Each of these case studies includes an impact story, history of the program, how that specific program works, why practitioners believe their program works, impact with impact data, and recommendations for starting something similar in your community.

You can read this report from front to back, or just page to the individual sections that interest you, as each solution is self-contained. Our hope is that these solutions spark new ideas, new action, and perhaps even new solutions to help you overcome the court backlogs crisis in your community.

  1. Chronis, Kasey. ‘I Still Love You:’ Man Charged with Stalking Accused of Firing Shots That Killed 1, Injured 2. Fox6now, February 15, 2020.
  2. Weiner, Rachel. Jury Trials Are Starting Again. but the Pandemic Put Some Behind Bars Past Their Sentences. The Washington Post. WP Company, June 24, 2021.
  3. Carson, Sophie. Jackson Sparks, an 8-Year-Old Boy, Becomes the First Child to Die from Injuries in the Waukesha Christmas Parade. jsonline. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 20, 2022. jackson-sparks-8-years-old-dies-injuries-waukesha-christmas-parade/8741743002/.
  4. Chronis, Kasey. ‘I Still Love You:’ Man Charged with Stalking Accused of Firing Shots That Killed 1, Injured 2. Fox6now, February 15, 2020.
  5. Jordan, Ben. ‘Justice Delayed’: MKE Co. DA, Chief Judge Say Criminal Case Backlog Could Take 2 Years to Overcome. TMJ4, March 17, 2021.
  6. Weiner, Rachel. Jury Trials Are Starting Again. but the Pandemic Put Some Behind Bars Past Their Sentences. The Washington Post. WP Company, June 24, 2021.
  7. Luthern, Ashley and Dirr, Alison. ‘A mistake:’ Chisholm, chief judge explains low bail given to Waukesha parade suspect in earlier case. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Jan 20, 2022.
  8. Horazdovsky, Kortnie. Pandemic’s Impacts on Alaska’s Criminal Justice System Add to Case Backlog. Alaska’s News Source. KTUU, March 3, 2022.
  9. Burman, Michele and Brooks-Hay, Oona. Delays in Trials: the implications for victim-survivors of rape and serious sexual assault. The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research. July 2020.
  10. Baughman, Shima. Costs of Pretrial Detention. Boston University Law Review, 1, 97 (April 1, 2016): 5–6.
  11. Carbonaro, Giulia. Nearly 200 Inmates Accidentally Released Due to ‘Embarrassing’ Glitch. Newsweek. Newsweek, March 31, 2022.
  12. Luskin, Mary Lee, and Robert C. Luskin. Why so Fast, Why so Slow?: Explaining Case Processing Time. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-) 77, no. 1 (1986): 191.
  13. Report of the Judicial Conference § (1930). 42.
  14. United States Government Printing Office, The challenge of crime in a free society: A report § (1967). 127.
  15. Rep. Model Time Standards for State Trial Courts. National Center for State Courts. Accessed August 28, 2022.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Butters, Rob, Kort Prince, Allyson Walker, Erin B. Worwood, and Christian M. Sarver. Does Reducing Case Processing Time Reduce Recidivism? A Study of the Early Case Resolution Court. Criminal Justice Policy Review 31, no. 1 (2018): 22–41.
  19. Ostrom, Brian & Hamblin, Lydia & Schauffler, Richard & Raaen, Nial. (2020). 14-15. Timely Justice in Criminal Cases: What the Data Tells Us. 10.13140/RG.2.2.21207.70566.
  20. Dalton, Trevor. The Trajectory of Civil Cases in Federal Court. Above the Law. The Juris Lab, May 28, 2021.
  21. McGillis, Daniel. Community Mediation Programs: Developments and Challenges. New OJP Resources. U.S. Department of Justice. July, 1997.
  22. Golde, Katie Bart and Kalvis. Supreme Court’s Closure Could Be First Disease-Related Shuttering in a Century (Updated). SCOTUSblog, March 19, 2020.
  23. Rankin, Bill. Georgia Supreme Court Holds First ‘Virtual’ Court Session. ajc. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 20, 2020.–law/georgia-supreme-court-holds-first-virtual-court-session/9OrWlvBQkPkyA9uyXi1aBN/
  24. Ex Parte v. Milligan (United States Supreme Court April 3, 1866).
  25. State Court Closures in Response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic between March and November, 2020. Ballotpedia, 2020.,_2020
  26. Chan, Melissa. ‘I Want This Over.’ For Victims and the Accused, Justice Is Delayed as COVID-19 Snarls Courts. Time, February 23, 2021.
  27. Miller, Cody. Seattle City Attorney to Expedite Filing Decisions on All New Cases to Ease 5,000-Case Backlog. king5, February 7, 2022.
  28. The Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on State &; Local Courts Study 2021. Thomson Reuters Institute , 2021.
  29. Morgan, Erin. Lowcountry Families Frustrated by Backlog in Homicide Cases. WCBD News 2. WCBD News 2, May 17, 2022.
  30. Spence, Alaina Willis. PRETRIAL RELEASE IN THE AGE OF COVID-19: WHAT DID WE LEARN? Connecticut Public Interest Law Journal 21, no. 1 (2021): 99.
  31. Weiner, Rachel. Jury Trials Are Starting Again. but the Pandemic Put Some Behind Bars Past Their Sentences. The Washington Post. WP Company, June 24, 2021.
  32. MacGillis, Alec. Two Cities Took Different Approaches to Pandemic Court Closures. They Got Different Results. ProPublica, July 19, 2022.
  33. Weiner, Rachel. Jury Trials Are Starting Again. but the Pandemic Put Some Behind Bars Past Their Sentences. The Washington Post. WP Company, June 24, 2021.
  34. United States Government Printing Office, The challenge of crime in a free society: A report § (1967). 154.
  35. Recidivism. Division on Criminal Justice – Office of Research and Statistics. Accessed August 28, 2022.
  36. Rep. 2017 DIVISION OF JUVENILE JUSTICE RECIDIVISM REPORT. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, January 2019.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Goerdt, John A. Explaining the Pace of Civil Case Litigation: The Latest Evidence from 37 Large Urban Trial Courts. Justice System Journal 15, no. 1 (1991): 298.
  39. Rep. Courts of Limited Jurisdiction 2019 Annual Report: Annual Caseload Report. 176. Washington State Courts, 2020.
  40. Rep. Colorado Judicial Branch Annual Statistical Report Fiscal Year 2019. 78. Colorado Courts, 2020.
  41. Rep. 2019 COURT STATISTICS REPORT Statewide Caseload Trends. 140. Judicial Council of California, 2019.
  42. Ibid.