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Delays In Youth Justice
By Phil Bulman, staff writer at NIJ
Published: 05/19/2014

Juvenile justice courthouse Historically, the American juvenile justice system has sought to take an individualized approach to each case, focusing more on solving problems than on punishing offenders. But solving problems related to human behavior takes time and can collide with the principles of swift and certain intervention. Delays in the processing of youth through the justice system can have negative results not only for the youth themselves but also for their families and communities.

Improving the timeliness of the justice process is far more than a technical matter for managers and judges; it is a critical part of policy and practice in ensuring the juvenile justice system fulfills its basic mission.

This bulletin reviews a research effort in juvenile case processing that looked at two information sources, a nationwide sample of counties and an indepth investigation of three Midwestern courts:
  • The researchers examined case-level data from the National Juvenile Court Data Archive, comparing trends in caseloads and case-processing times from two time periods: a) 1985-1994 (examined in an earlier study) and b) 1995-2004. The comparison shows that caseloads and case-processing times in juvenile courts increased during the first 10-year period but decreased during the second.
  • The researchers studied the case management strategies employed by three well-respected Midwestern courts of varying sizes: Hamilton County (Cincinnati, Ohio), Kent County (Grand Rapids, Mich.) and Peoria County (Peoria, Ill.). The efforts to control youth justice delays in these three counties, as in all jurisdictions, focus on managerial, legal and professional issues. All three sites used different tactics, tailored to the size of their jurisdictions and their available financial, human, and computing resources, and all three had success.
Standards for Timely Case Processing

Unlike adults, juveniles do not have a Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial under the U.S. Constitution. A few states have encouraged speediness using statutes, court rules or both. Others have issued standards for timely case processing. The standards, however, are rarely compulsory. Table 1 shows suggested time limits proposed by various professional organizations. Many jurisdictions still exceed even the most tolerant of these standards.

Key Findings From a Nationwide Data Sample

To examine the larger context of juvenile justice delays, researchers examined case-level delinquency data from the National Juvenile Court Data Archive(1). The analysis included information from a large sample of juvenile courts and cases handled from 1995 to 2004. The researchers compared these data with data from an earlier study that analyzed delinquency processing from 1985 to 1994(2).

From 1985 to 1994, median processing times increased by 26 percent and total caseload increased 57 percent. From 1995 to 2004, median processing times decreased 10 percent and total caseload decreased 8 percent.

In both periods, processing time was related to jurisdiction size. As shown in table 2, for example, by the end of the 1995-2004 period, the median time to disposition was:
  • 49 days in large counties.
  • 40 days in midsize jurisdictions.
  • 34 days in small jurisdictions.
During this period, the median processing time in large jurisdictions decreased, regardless of changes in caseload size, while in midsize and small jurisdictions, processing time increased only when caseloads increased.

Longer processing times were associated with formally charged cases that did not result in adjudication. Forty-five percent of these cases took more than 90 days to finish. These were likely cases held open awaiting other actions, such as when a juvenile is completing a program of voluntary services and sanctions.

Between 1995 and 2004, processing time decreased the most (11 percent) in large jurisdictions with declining delinquency rates, but there was no easy link between jurisdiction size, caseload size and processing time.

The formal delinquency caseload in small counties increased by 12 percent, but processing times remained unchanged. In large counties, the caseload decreased by 5 percent, but median processing times fell 12 percent. Even in large counties that experienced a 50-percent increase in their formal caseloads, median time to disposition fell 11 percent.

In sum, case-processing times decreased between 1995 and 2004, with the sharpest declines in large counties, counties with large proportions of formally processed cases involving secure detention, and counties with large proportions of public order offenses. There may be a number of reasons for these patterns. One explanation could be that these counties likely experienced the sharpest increases in case-processing times during the late 1980s and early 1990s when serious juvenile crime was on the rise. When juvenile crime began decreasing, the counties might have been able to speed up their processing times.

Findings From Three Case Studies

The three jurisdictions in the case studies took different approaches to reducing juvenile court delays, and each was effective. Researchers interviewed judges and other staff, watched proceedings, and reviewed court records and statistical reports.

Two common themes emerged:
  • Success in addressing court delay requires leadership in the form of a court culture that is committed to case management.
  • Routine and shared communication is vital for any successful case management system, no matter how automated that system may be.
The case studies illustrate a variety of successful case management systems, from a highly automated system in the largest jurisdiction to a largely paper- driven system that uses a simple tracking database in the smallest.

The Hamilton County juvenile court uses a sophisticated, expensive, automated case management system to control delays and manage its work. The court has been successful at reducing delays. Although this system works, it could be expensive for cash-strapped jurisdictions.

The Kent County juvenile court relies on guidelines and time standards to avoid delays and to check its performance. Strong judicial leadership and able court management have been important in this county. A team oversees and tracks performance. This approach depends on a strong local court culture that stresses self-evaluation. The strategy works and could be effective in smaller jurisdictions that cannot afford expensive, automated systems.

Peoria County is a small jurisdiction with a small court staff. Previously, the judiciary identified lagging cases, but staff cuts made it difficult to improve timeliness. The probation department then developed a simple database to track cases, which provided useful information about caseloads and placements. Judges’ motivation to reduce delay and the county’s stable courtroom workgroups also contributed to efficiency. Peoria’s experience shows that simple information management helps to offset the constraints of limited budgets and staff.


The causes of delay in the juvenile justice system are complex. Researchers have linked court delays to a wide range of causes, including workload, jurisdiction size, case characteristics such as offense type and severity, procedural reasons, management and organization, and the informal norms and values of a court.

Processing times in adult courts have been studied more than those in juvenile courts, but those studies may be of limited value in understanding juvenile justice delays. The individualized approach of juvenile court proceedings is more complicated than adult proceedings and often takes more time.

Youth justice delays have clearly not disappeared in U.S. juvenile courts. Many jurisdictions still exceed even the most tolerant standards issued by national organizations and commissions. Courts today struggle with shrinking budgets and staff losses and processing delays are likely to continue. With sound leadership and creative management of information, however, courts of all sizes can battle delay and deliver timely and effective justice.

  1. The National Center for Juvenile Justice manages the archive for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
  2. Jeffrey Butts and Gregory Halemba, Waiting for Justice: Moving Young Offenders Through the Juvenile Court Process, Pittsburgh, PA: National Center for Juvenile Justice, 1996.
Points of view or opinions expressed in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of NIJ, OJJDP, or the U.S. Department of Justice.

This publication summarizes Delays in Youth Justice by Jeffrey A. Butts, Gretchen Ruth Cusick and Benjamin Adams, NCJ 228493, available at NCJRS.gov. Delays in Youth Justice is the final report for NIJ award number 2005-IJ- CX-0041. This summary was written by Phil Bulman, a staff writer at NIJ


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