Friday, January 04, 2008

Criminal caseloads rising dramatically despite falling crime

Despite a decline in crime over the last couple of decades, increasing criminal caseloads are flooding Texas' working judiciary, according to the 2007 annual report on the Texas judiciary from the Office of Court Administration.

After observing the precipitous and surprising decline in the Court of Criminal Appeals' caseload, I thought it might be informative to take a closer look at overall criminal court caseloads in Texas.

Between 1988 and 2007, reports the Texas Office of Court Administration, Texas district and county courts saw an overall 51% caseload increase. However, most of that increase came in the criminal courts, which saw a 71% caseload increase over that period, despite crime significantly declining overall. (The total number of civil cases, by contrast, rose just 31% over the same period, with the vast majority of that increase in family law cases.) Reports the OCA:
Six categories of criminal cases increased over 100 percent in the past 20 years. Traffic cases filed in county courts increased the most (296 percent). Misdemeanor assault cases increased 266 percent; felony and misdemeanor drug offense cases increased 191 percent; felony assault or attempted murder cases increased 178 percent; other felonies increased 144 percent; and felony DWI cases increased 127 percent.
Since crime rates declined substantially (pdf) over this same period, what explains these dramatic increases?

N.b., all of these increases far outstrip population growth, and represent more aggressive enforcement, often focusing on suspects and cases - e.g., misdemeanor assaults - who would not have drawn official attention in years past. Penalty increases partially explain the rise in felony DWI cases. And the boost in traffic cases IMO coincides with a more radical reliance by state and local officials on traffic fines for revenue instead of raising taxes.

But overall, I can't think of a good reason for these increases that's explained by demographics or crime statistics - instead these numbers represent policy choices by elected officials to arrest more people for lesser offenses than in the past. Our laws and officials today simply are more likely to treat deviant minor behavior as criminal.

What do you think? Why have criminal caseloads increased so dramatically when crime overall is declining?

13 comments:

escapedfromla said...

One possibility is stiffer penalties (e.g., longer sentences, the DWI surcharge) that may actually discourage or delay plea-bargaining. Another possibility that reaches the same end could be greater inflexibility shown by prosecutors in the bargaining process.

Anonymous said...

Got to keep them jails and prisons full! Full employment for the criminal justice machine.

With 20% of the population having experience with the Judicial System, there is more understanding of the dangers of a plea bargain. There is a much greater need to seek the constitutional protections that are only possible when there is no plea bargain. Long prison sentences are very real and the accused is trying to protect themselves as best they can.

Our society is becoming more educated and more litigous. Each attorney must be supported by citizens with law suits or taxes. Each and everyone of us will need to step up to the plate and initiate a law suit to keep them paid. The alternative is an increase in taxes and we don't want that!

The sad part is the Courts are badly under funded. Public Defenders are helpful but no match for the resources of the District Attorney's office. Despite fat budgets, true justice is absent from the system. Taking someone to jail for having less than 4 oz. of pot is absurd. It makes a farce of the idea that
protection of Society is the goal of the Juidicial System.

rage judicata said...

Many DA's feel that there is less crime because the criminals are in jail.

I know New York has had both a declining jail population and declining crime rate, but how that differs from Texas I don't know.

I'm also sure you're waiting in the wings to trounce that argument, and please do because I don't buy it either. But I don't have any real evidence against it.

Anonymous said...

Crime pays - billions of dollars. The police, prosecutor and private prison industries are very good at keeping themselves in the money.

escapedfromla said...

Okay, I'll take another run at it. The factors I suggested previously may account for rising criminal caseloads, as may increasing numbers of unexecuted warrants on open cases. As for "falling crime," it may be that the decrease is attributable to a decrease in the number of "crimes known to police." Some relevant factors may include the inability of agencies to keep pace with employee turnover, resulting in lower staffing levels for patrol and/or investigative functions, policy decisions that divert agency resources away from activities that yield higher arrest numbers, or - possibly - some measure of success from public education efforts.

For Anon1, I don't why anyone would think that the courts are underfunded. Frankly, I think we should have pubic defender offices that are funded by the counties or state, but the funding should not pass through the courts. The courts, some of which have given the Fair Defense Act only scant lip service, should have no control over the funding, selection, or strategies of appointed counsel. They simply should focus on what neutrality they can muster.

rage judicata said...

escapefromla: How would crimes known to police affect anything? Are you on crack?

escapedfromla said...

Dear Rage:

DUUHHHH!!! For some odd reason, do you imagine that the crime rate and the number of arrests somehow include the crimes police don't know about?

If the police don't know about a crime, it doesn't result in an arrest or a charge filed.

I understand you may not like the reasoning, but you haven't offered a more plausible reason.

E

rage judicata said...

escape: You've shown me no reasoning at all. Are you claiming that crime rates are lowering because more crimes are not reported than in the past?

I think that you are confusing unreported crimes with unsolved crimes. Or maybe you're just confused. If you have stats on the fact that more crimes go unreported than ever before, which is the only way unreported crimes could affect crime rates, please wow us with them.

escapedfromla said...

No confusion here, rage. I never said anything about crimes reported to the police. I referred simply to crimes known to police. For example, in Harris County, there are many (far too many) so-called "trace cases," where often trace amounts of drugs are discovered pursuant to traffic or investigative stops and result in felony charges. To the extent that police are diverted from the opportunity to make those stops, the number of "trace cases" may be affected. Before you go flying off the deep end again, I'm just saying that's one example.

I didn't say I had all the answers, but I understood the search was for possible reasons.

Perhaps if you have data to demonstrate that all the criminals are already in jail, you would share that with the rest of us.

rage judicata said...

No confusion here, rage. I never said anything about crimes reported to the police. I referred simply to crimes known to police.

What the hell are you saying? If they're reported, they're known. If the cops don't find out about them now, it's likely that they never would have before, since forensics are better, so either way the stats are not affected. Quit trying to justify your kooky math.

escapedfromla said...

Rage - I understand you're probably just a lawyer, so I'll make this easy for you.

The original question asked for thoughts on why caseloads are rising when overall crime is declining. There is no simple answer. I suggested several possible factors that might be responsive, including the possibility that the number of crimes known to police has decreased. I never suggested that the number of actual crimes had decreased. only that the number known - and which probably would result in arrest - may have decreased.

I've worked in criminal justice for over 25 years and I know that policy decisions, such as diverting resources for the politically correct task force du jour, can lead to fluctuations (sometimes significant fluctuations) in the reportable statistics. That's not supposition; that's a fact of life.

As for reporting, you brought that up. I was simply talking about criminal activity usually discovered in the course of other police activities, not crimes reported to the police. Any activities that diminish the opportunity to "discover" criminal activity also will diminish the number of arrests for those types of offenses. In the example I offered, "trace cases" have contributed substantially to the number of felony drug cases filed in Harris County, but none of those cases were reported crimes. They were artifacts resulting from other enforcement activity. If officers are diverted from those activities, the opportunity to discover trace amounts of drugs may diminish.

Anyway, I was just offering plausible suggestions in response to Grits' question, and I'm sure there are more I haven't considered. If you still have a problem with my reasoning . . . well, it's not like my life - or that of others - was waiting breathlessly for your approving opinion.

rage judicata said...

The original question asked for thoughts on why caseloads are rising when overall crime is declining.

And your answer to why there are more cases is because they don't know about all of the cases? How can they have more cases, if they don't have more cases because they don't know about the crimes?

YOu can talk around it all you want, but "because they don't know about the crimes" isn't the answer to any question related to this topic.

escapedfromla said...

Relax rage. You'll catch on one day.

Maybe.