On any week night, he or she can pick up the remote control and start channel surfing. Coming across two or three law enforcement related shows such as Law & Order or CSI is not uncommon. Watching Law & Order, the entire criminal justice process unfolds right before our eyes in about 60 minutes. We get to witness a functional courtroom workgroup. In a perfect world, the process would run as smoothly as depicted on television. In this paper, we will examine the courtroom work group and the roles each person plays in carrying out justice.
A courtroom work group is made up of a judge, bailiffs, prosecution, defense counsel, court clerks, court reporters, and expert witnesses. In other words, they are “professional” courtroom personnel. Also present in a courtroom for a trial are nonprofessional participants like witnesses and jurors. This team works together to carry out justice. The courtroom work group is guided by statutory requirements and ethical guidelines, and its members are typically dedicated to bringing the trial and other courtroom procedures to a close (Schmalleger, 2011). Fairness must be present in cases handled. A judge is the ultimate authority in the courtroom, and satisfies both the rights of the accused and public interests in justice administration. Judges on the Federal level are nominated by the President and those nominations are confirmed by the Senate. Judges on the state level are put in power by election or appointment by the Governor.
Judges must weigh objections, decide on the admissibility of evidence presented, maintain order, and discipline on anyone who interferes with the operation of the court. In trials with no jury, or a bench trial, the judge will determine guilt or innocence. The bailiff is a law enforcement officer who is responsible for maintaining order in the court and ensuring that rules are followed. The bailiff will announce the entry of the judge into the courtroom, call witnesses, and prevent the accused from escaping the courtroom. The bailiff plays an important role in controlling the courtroom, which in high profile or sensitive cases, can become heated or threaten the other people present. Prosecution attorneys represent the government or community in a criminal trial. Much like judges, prosecutors are chosen in different ways on different levels. Prosecutors are charged with determining whether to charge or not charge an offender, scheduling cases, and offer or accept plea bargains. Because prosecutors have a long list of duties to carry out, most have an assistant or staff that handles most of the in-court duties. In some instances, prosecutors also help advice police departments during investigations.
Unfortunately, in some states this is not always legal. Defense counsels are hired or appointed professionals to conduct legal defense of people accused of committing a crime. Defense lawyers are to represent the interest of the accused and ensure the rights of that person are not violated. Any communication that occurs between the defense, and the accused is protected by attorney-client confidentiality. The defense has the task, difficult in some cases, of preparing a defense strategy based on facts that will test the validity of a prosecutor’s case. A court reporter or “stenographer,” is a very important person in this cycle. They are required to generate a written record of anything that takes place in the courtroom. Any command such as testimony, objections, rulings, or jury instruction is recorded in the event something needs to be revisited previously to aid the defense or prosecution.
Similar to the court reporter, a court clerk is someone who maintains all records of cases, prepares the jury pool, issues summons or subpoenas, marks evidence, and maintains custody. The clerk handles all administrative tasks which is very important. Picture the court system without this person. How much more paperwork would a defense or prosecution attorney have to deal with on top of their already stacked schedule? How would that distract them from either defending or prosecuting an accused perpetrator to the best of their ability?
He or she could argue that a clerk is the backbone of the system with the support they provide. Finally in the courtroom work group is the expert witness. These people are those with special skills or knowledge deemed relevant by the court. These people can be doctors, ballistic experts, or psychologists to name a few. Their testimony could be crucial in determining guilt or innocence of those accused of a crime. Lay witnesses may be a factor in a case also, but they are not considered professionals.
Role of a Prosecutor
As mentioned earlier in this paper, the role of a prosecutor is very important. The prosecutor has the duty of representing the people in court. The prosecutor needs to prove the guilt of those accused to the jury. The tasks of the prosecutor do not stop after a verdict of guilty or innocent is registered. Once the verdict comes back, a prosecutor can recommend sentences to the judge. Prosecutors can argue that prior infractions or severity of the crime committed warrants severe punishments. On the other hand, once a convicted defendant files an appeal, a prosecutor may be forced to defend his or her actions or recommendations.
Prosecutors also have the discretion to decide what cases to pursue. Before a case even goes to trial, they may accept plea bargains or dismiss a case completely because of lack of evidence produced. In fact, “Prosecutors dismiss one third to one half of all felony cases before trial or before a plea bargain is made” (Schmalleger 2011). If the criteria for a prosecutor to take a case were more or less strict, this may add to either a build-up of case backlog, to the breakdown of the system altogether.
Criminal Justice Funnel
Unfortunately, the volume of cases generated can lead to a backlog or funnel affect. This may lead the public to perceive the system as “assembly line” justice. In reality, many steps are part of this process before a case makes it to court. Judges are tasked with much more than just hearing cases and going home. Ample amounts of time for each case are just not always possible due to the case load of the courtroom work group. An article I found pertaining to family court cases states, “Not having enough judges and resources leads to delays. That’s a problem. People are going through major life crises and children with often serious issues often have to be put on hold” (Glenn, 2010, para. 2). I agree with this statement given the particular circumstances.
Some of the solutions that may help to eliminate the backlog of cases are plea bargaining less serious offenses such as shoplifting. It is a hard question to answer personally on how to avoid a backlog of cases but those involved in the courtroom work group have a difficult job. Most citizens are quick to criticize the system but do not take the time to look at the big picture. The effectiveness of alternate punishments can also make it hard to impose other methods. For now, the people who serve justice must continue to pick their battles and use the resources in a methodical manner. Until Law & Order becomes reality, justice in a perfect world will only be available on television.