Common Performance Measures Across the Justice System

Some performance measures are better than others. They bring people together for joint performance across institutional boundaries – the courts, law enforcement, jails, prosecution and defense services. They can be used at the highest policy levels to measure progress toward an overarching purpose and shared strategic goal that the separate institutions are expected to achieve.

Duration of Pretrial Custody

Duration of pretrial custody -- expressed in terms of central tendencies (mean and median days) and ranges of length of pretrial detention -- is one such measure. Because it is clear, focused and actionable across all justice system partners, duration of pretrial custody can be the rallying point of reform and improvement efforts that depend on justice system partners working together.

Use of this measure requires, first, an operational definition -- i.e., getting agreement about precisely what a pre-trial detention day is and is not (see Sub-Steps 2.3 and 2.4 – Identifying Desired Performance Measures). Once that’s done, you need to identify the statistics of central tendency and variation you want for the measure. Depending on the ease or difficulty of getting the required data, I recommend calculating mean and median days, 90th and 99th percentile in days, as well as the number of defendants, percent of defendants, and cumulative percentage in various time periods (e.g., 1-5, 6-10, and so forth). Finally, a coalition of justice system partners should build the business (e.g., identification of system success factors) and technical architecture (e.g., query and reporting application) to support continuous monitoring, analyzing and managing the performance of various partners indicated by the measure.

Rallying Point for Reform

As noted in a M2M posting last year, Breakout Measures for Jail Overcrowding, courts’ use of a measurement of the duration of pretrial detention extends the relevance of commonly used time to disposition measures. This breakout (disaggregation) may be readily accessible via automated case management systems. Many cities like Seattle, Phoenix and Cleveland face mandates to alleviate jail overcrowding. Court leaders and managers can be seen as responsive, and reap considerable political capital in their criminal justice communities, simply by (a) establishing a baseline of the median number of days defendants spend in pretrial custody, and by (b) vowing to examine case processing and important pretrial issues (warrants, initial appearance/arraignment, plea agreements, bail decision making, pretrial services, alternative sentencing) that, if addressed, might reduce the number of days defendants spend in jail. If, in fact, the trend of this measure is downward over time, it can be seen as a demonstration that the court is doing something to alleviate jail overcrowding.

As a common performance measure across the justice system, the duration of pretrial detention measure has legs. Divergence of the mean and median days of pretrial custody may be an indicator of inequality of treatment. For example, long pre-trial detention may be concentrated in a small proportion of the detained population, inflating the mean but not the median. When mean and median diverge, it is a signal to identify the characteristics of those with long stays.

As pointed in the Vera Institute of Justice’s excellent 2003 Global Guide to Performance Indicators, minimizing pretrial detention provides the quintessential opportunity to measure timeliness and responsiveness that depend on the combined efforts of courts, police, prosecution, defense and jails. Successfully implementing large-scale improvement initiatives that depend on the joint efforts across the justice system (e.g., eliminating jail overcrowding or integrated information technology) often run into intractable justice system governance issues that are impossible to tackle head-on. Consequently, the importance initiatives get diverted, unfocused, and little gets done.

As leadership expert Marcus Buckingham says, above all leaders have to be clear. Commitment to a clear, focused and actionable common performance measure like duration of pretrial custody – which is clearly aligned with justice system-wide goals of timeliness and responsiveness – is a way to sidestep sticky issues of governance and, perhaps, deal with them once successful joint effort is demonstrated by a decrease in the duration of pretrial custody. The power in the performance measure is that it is clear, focused and actionable. The measure helps them be that and get right to work without having to spend an eternity rehashing the back-story.

Other Common Measures

In addition to median number of pretrial days, there are, of course, other common measures aligned with key success factors for the justice system such as Access to Justice (Public Participation), Public Trust and Confidence (Interagency Confidence), Expedition and Timeliness, Safety (Risk Management), Fairness and Equality, Integrity (Upholding Rule of Law, Appropriate Outcomes), Accountability, and Innovation in the Public interest (Responsiveness, Reform, Best Practices, Integration of Justice System Components). Examples include:
  1. Ratings of public trust and confidence by users of/participants of the accessibility, convenience, fairness and equality, timeliness, safety, treatment, courtesy, respect, responsiveness and other aspects of justice system treatment of users and participants in services and programs.
  2. Percent change over time of incidents of critical breakdown of established standards of system good practice, professional conduct or rate of deaths or serious injury while in contact with justice system. (This measure encompasses the next two examples as indicators of integrity of the justice system. The rationale is, in part, that high levels of recidivism and low levels of compliance with judicial orders are indicative of breakdown of justice system integrity.)
  3. The rate of client return following service/intervention.
  4. Percent of compliance with judicial orders as a proportion of total orders issued.
  5. Victimization Reporting. Percent of primary and secondary victims who do/do not report to police.
  6. Ratings of employees of their engagement, motivation, and readiness to perform their job.
  7. Percent eligible persons using/participating in justice system programs and services.
  8. Percent of justice system services and programs delivered to users/participants on-time or according to established schedules.
  9. Remands in custody (related to duration in pretrial custody).
  10. Perceptions of safety of individuals in the custody of the justice sector.
  11. No show rate of witnesses

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