In The United States criminal justice system the informal arrangement between a criminal prosecutor, criminal defense attorney, and the judicial officeris called a courtroom work group. The courtroom workgroup was proposed by Eisenstein and Jacob in 1977 to explain their observations of the ways courts, especially lower level courts, actually come to decisions. This foundational concept in the academic discipline of criminal justice identifies the seemingly opposing courtroom participants as collaborators in “doing justice.”
Efficient courtroom workgroups seek to process cases rather than dispense justice. Because the courtroom workgroup deviates from the public idea of how justice works, it has developed a irregular set of virtues to continue its work and ease daily life for its participants. The academic theory of the courtroom workgroup has four cornerstone concepts that recognize this fact: Speed, Pragmatic Cynicism, Collegiality, and Secrecy. This has been proved to greater and lesser extents in different courts. Defendants are assumed to be guilty. The procedural merits of the case are the true determinative factors of an outcome. Prosecutors and defense attorneys engage in a comparison of charges against possible procedural flaws and possible defenses to determine at the going rate for a crime. These factors are used to figure out how much punishment the plea bargain will offer. For example, group relationships and the desire to “keep” a healthy working relationship are important to group members. The workings of the courtroom group and the “going rate” for given crimes are not matters for public disclosure. Estimates can be given to clients, but usually uttered in terms of the prosecution’s willingness to negotiate. (Summarized by O’Connor, T.R., 2005)
The courtroom workgroup is a tool for prosecutorial discretion. Many different techniques are used to convince the defendant that the evidence against him or her is overwhelming. The defendant may be persuaded to plead guilty to a few of the charges in return for not being prosecuted for the remaining charges. To convince the defendant that the risk of not pleading guilty is intolerable, “charge stacking” is a process by which police and prosecutors create a case with numerous charges or numerous instances of the same charge to convince the defendant that the risk of not pleading guilty is intolerable. Many indirect pressures come together to boost participation in the courtroom workgroup. Defense attorneys in public defender offices often do not have enough time to prepare a case in detail for all of their clients.
Further, they often do not have the budget to fully investigate the facts of a case through either staff or private investigators. They often must rely solely on police reports for such information. In some jurisdictions, clients do not meet their attorneys until they are in court. Typically, public defenders will meet briefly with clients in holding facilities or jails. The defense attorney defends his or her client by seeking less punishment. The courtroom workgroup is, in some sense, a response to a lack of resources for public defenders. Huemann (1977) indicates that many defense attorneys feel pressured to keep up with their caseloads. This pressure can be revealed in the courtroom through disapproval by the judge for delays. Many indirect pressures come together to boost participation in the courtroom workgroup.
While many of the higher level prosecutions still follow the model, there is evidence that lower-level proceedings follow the courtroom workgroup model. The thought of a courtroom workgroup is associated with plea bargaining. The courtroom workgroup shows significant analytical power in overburdened courts dealing with large caseloads. The courtroom workgroup model is best suited to explain jurisdictions where defense attorneys are more or less permanently assigned, but even occasionally appointed lawyers can participate in these practices. Boland, Brady, Tyson, & Bassler (1983) indicate that approximately 90 percent of criminal cases are settled by plea bargain. This figure appears to be stable over the last twenty years (Rainville & Reaves, 2003). Some collaborative efforts on the part of the courtroom workgroup simply must be present to facilitate this high percentage of pleas.
Boland, B., Brady, E., Tyson, H., & Bassler, J. (1983). The prosecution of felony arrests. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics. Eisenstein, J. & Jacob, H. (1977). Felony Justice: An organizational analysis of criminal courts. Boston : Little & Brown. Huemann, M. (1977). Plea bargaining: The experiences of prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, Il. O’Connor, T.R. (2005). Court organizational issues: The courtroom workgroup. http://faculty.ncwc.edu/TOConnor/417/417lect12.htm Rainville, G. & Reaves, B.A. (2003). Felony defendants in large urban counties. Washington D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
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