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Department of Justice RT


Office of Justice Programs




Bureau of Justice Assistance J U S T IC E P

Volume 1 • Issue 1
July 1993

Bureau of Justice Assistance

Drug Night Courts: How Feasible Are They?

Assessing Cook County’s Example
Barbara E. Smith, Robert C. Davis, and Sharon R. Goretsky, American Bar Association,
and Arthur J. Lurigio and Susan J. Popkin, Loyola University of Chicago

he filing of drug cases in felony courts has defenders, probation officers, support staff, and
increased significantly over the last several courtrooms. However, the cost of building new court-
years. In many jurisdictions, increases in rooms and offices is high and, for some jurisdictions,
caseloads seriously strain the capacity of prohibitive.
courts to process both narcotics and other
felony cases. One way to reduce these costs substantially is to make
existing courtrooms serve double duty by adding an
Courts have adopted various methods to alleviate the evening shift. In a number of ways, it makes sense for
strain. For example, the Bureau of Justice Assistance evening shift calendars to contain narcotics cases. These
(BJA) has promoted better case management through its are usually the most numerous felony cases, taking up
differentiated and expedited case management pro- half of the calendar in some felony courts. Furthermore,
grams in selected courts across the country. BJA has also narcotics cases are relatively easy to dispose. Finally,
supported the efforts of State court leaders to maximize they seldom require jurors or civilian witnesses, who
the operational effectiveness of trial courts through its might be reluctant at night to travel to court locations in
Court Performance Measures and Standards Program. It high-crime neighborhoods.
has sponsored an analysis of recidivism patterns and
long-term costs associated with this processing of cases Although evening operation is an attractive concept,
through special drug courts. In addition, BJA’s struc- concerns arise about efficiency, practicality, and quality
tured fines program offers court leaders a viable alterna- of justice. These need to be carefully weighed before
tive sanction to incarceration. making decisions as to the advisability of implementing
night sessions. The present research was undertaken to
But improved case management, operational reforms, address such concerns in its assessment of drug night
and establishment of special drug courts are, in many court operations. Cook County, Illinois, turned out to be
situations, insufficient to cope with the massive influx of the only court in the country that had a drug night
felony filings. Courts are being forced to consider addi- court. Consequently, much of this report is based on
tional resources—new judges, prosecutors, public that experience.
In Cook County the researchers courts were established there. Pre- As for the concern that case infor-
conducted lengthy interviews with siding Judge Fitzgerald told the mation may be harder to obtain at
administrators, surveyed night court research team that he had hoped for night, a survey found that 57 percent
staff, collected data from case 5,000 dispositions annually from the of the night court staff believed that
records, and observed night court new narcotics courts. During their access to information was a greater
operations first hand. Presiding first year of operation, they actually problem at night than for day court
Judge Thomas Fitzgerald and many disposed of 9,700 cases. staff. However, observation of the
others helped the research team gain night courts uncovered no evidence
access to the courtroom and court The sample data show a large reduc- to that effect, nor did this observa-
file data needed for their assessment. tion in narcotics cases in the time- tion support the contention that
The project also conducted a survey frames from case assignment to adjudication was delayed when
of courts in the Nation’s 50 largest sentencing after night courts opened. information was immediately
counties to find out whether those Median time to disposition fell from unavailable.
courts had any current evening op- 245 days to just 86 days. The mean
erations or had used them in the number of court dates per narcotics The possibility cannot be ruled out
past, and whether the courts were case dropped from about 11 prior to that even more impressive gains in
receptive to the concept of evening the night courts to just over 6 after efficiency could have been made by
operations for drug cases.* their inception. implementing special drug courts
during regular court hours. It is
Moreover, there has been a signifi- clear, however, that great gains in
Efficiency Issues cant decrease in processing time for the efficiency of processing narcotics
other felony cases since the night cases coincided with the opening of

S ome officials in Chicago

and other cities expressed
concern about whether night
courts could be as efficient as day-
courts opened. The reductions in
processing time for narcotics cases
may result from better case manage-
ment and a new, enthusiastic crew
the drug night courts in Cook

time operations. Certainly staff of judges in the drug night courts.

fatigue is a greater problem at night
than during the day. Night opera-
tions are harder to supervise because
most administrative staff of criminal
justice agencies are not present.
Principal Findings
Unlike day court, a night court

that finishes its calendar early can-
not be called upon to accept over- his assessment of the feasibility of establishing night courts for
flow from other courtrooms. Also, narcotics cases drew heavily on the experience of Cook County,
information essential to adjudicating Illinois, Circuit Court. To summarize the findings:
cases (probation or drug treatment
history, other pending cases, etc.) • Night operations can be quite efficient. Coincident with setting up its
may be harder to acquire at night. drug night courts, Cook County cut processing time for narcotics cases
These are among the legitimate is-
sues that need to be addressed by • Those wishing to set up drug night courts need to be vigilant in order
jurisdictions considering evening to ensure that the quality of justice in narcotics cases is not compro-
operations. The data collected in mised. In Cook County research found that the establishment of drug
Cook County indicated no ineffi- night courts coincided with more lenient sentences, fewer trials, and a
ciency in the operation of drug night lower rate of representation by private attorneys for narcotics defend-
courts. Indeed, processing time of ants. All but the last consequence likely resulted from segregating nar-
narcotics cases has been dramati- cotics cases together with greater emphasis on productivity, rather than
cally reduced since the drug night from evening operations per se.
• Quality staff can be successfully found for evening hours. Cook
County has shown that there are a number of innovative ways to recruit
* A monograph titled Assessment of the motivated people to staff night courts.
Feasibility of Drug Night Courts (NCJ 142415)
presents the authors’ findings in greater • In order to maintain high morale and efficiency, however, those con-
detail and names others who, like Judge
Fitzgerald, assisted in their study. For
sidering evening operations must be alert to special problems their staff
information on its availability, readers may members may encounter when working at night.
call the BJA Clearinghouse, toll free, at

The Quality of Justice words, “Without due process, every- at night, nearly half of all night court
thing else is meaningless. I believe staff surveyed (judges, attorneys,

S ome officials express con-

cerns about the quality of
justice in Cook County’s
drug night courts. The drug night
drug night courts give defendants
their due process rights. If I thought
otherwise, I’d shut the program
down tomorrow. That’s how strong-
probation officers, and clerks) men-
tioned the speedy pace as a problem.
Fifty-seven percent of the staff in the
night courts felt that caseload pres-
courts are seen by some as promot- ly I feel about it.” sures interfered with their ability to
ing “assembly-line justice.” Special- do their job well. Moreover, 6 out of
ization and the push for dispositions The research data confirm suspi- 10 persons surveyed cited fatigue as
are seen as “routinizing” case proc- cions that the number of narcotics a problem, making it the most fre-
essing at the cost of the rights of the defendants represented by private quently mentioned staff problem.
accused. (Similar concerns were attorneys dropped by 10 percentage
heard in other cities that have set up points after the night courts began. The research established that case
specialized drug courts, the criticism (The national survey also found that dispositions did change with the
being attributable to segregating nar- private attorneys in another city opening of the drug night courts.
cotics cases rather than to evening
hours as such.)
The Public Defender’s Office has
argued that segregating narcotics
Sentencing patterns may have
cases encourages “tunnel vision” changed . . . because the police
and does not allow judges to evalu-
ate narcotics cases in the context of began making arrests for those
other crimes. Moreover, segregation
can lead to “canned” (routinely caught with smaller amounts of
packaged) offers and can work
against individual attention to cases.
drugs than in the past.
The innocent are dissuaded from
pursuing their rights, say the critics, would be reluctant to attend night The plea rate for narcotics cases in-
and induced to plead guilty because court.) creased significantly, while dis-
the sentences typically are light, missal and trial rates fell
involving only probation. Convicted Cook County yielded no solid evi- proportionately. (The significant
offenders, it is argued, seldom re- dence, however, that failures to decline in the rate of trials was in
ceive drug treatment while on pro- appear by public or private attor- bench, rather than jury, trials.)
bation. Consequently, they are often neys changed because of the drug
brought back on probation viola- night courts. Similarly, no change in Simply finding staff to work evening
tions to face prison sentences. attendance rates was observed for hours can be a challenge. Nationally,
defendants. Although research re- the survey of nighttime court opera-
Below, all these issues are consid- sults do suggest that there have been tions revealed that a night jury op-
ered separately. changes in the processing and out- eration in Brooklyn, New York,
comes of narcotics cases since night failed in large measure because
The private defenders issue. Public
court was established, it appears to court administrators could not come
defenders told the research staff that,
be a judgment call as to whether to an agreement with the labor
because private attorneys do not like
these changes, on balance, have union at the Legal Aid Society; thus
to appear at night, more defendants harmed the interests of defendants. the union refused to allow its mem-
have been represented by public
The most important point to con- bers to work at night. Cook County
defenders since the drug night
sider in this finding is that the has used innovative ways to staff its
courts opened. In addition, they say,
changes are the result of segregating drug night courts, from requesting
the creation of night court has re-
narcotics cases and emphasizing volunteers to offering incentives, to
sulted in fewer motions being filed
productivity; they are unrelated to making a stint in night court part of
and fewer trials being held in narcot- the fact that court operations occur regular staff rotation.
ics cases.
after dark.
By and large, these efforts have been
The assertion that drug night courts
The fatigue and security issues. quite successful in recruiting and
jeopardize the due process rights of Observation in the night courts indi- maintaining night court staff. There
defendants is strongly disputed by
cates that the case processing pace is still are special problems that staff
judges and staff of the State Attor-
indeed rapid. When asked about encounter when working at night
ney’s Office. In Judge Fitzgerald’s
problems encountered with working that may affect morale and effi-

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ciency. The staff survey disclosed offenders sentenced to probation before and after the drug night
that the main problem in working rose from 45 percent to 67 percent, courts opened. However, there are a
nights is fatigue—mentioned by 60 while periods of probation de- number of reasons for the very lim-
percent of the respondents overall creased significantly. (No changes ited use of treatment.
and by 83 percent of judges working were observed in dispositions and
at night. Individual responses indi- sentences of other felony cases.) First, drug treatment for defendants
cate that fatigue complaints arise is said to be rarely ordered because
from a combination of the work Of course, sentencing patterns may defendants placed on probation
hours and the rapid pace of the drug have changed for reasons other than have little incentive to volunteer for
night courts. segregating cases in night court. treatment. Unless they want treat-
Judge Fitzgerald and Deputy State ment, they will not be accepted by
Another commonly mentioned con- Attorney Al Tomasco believe that TASC.†
cern of night court staff (reported by sentences became more lenient be-
55 percent) is security, both within cause the police began making Second, TASC will not accept of-
the building and when traveling to arrests for those caught with smaller fenders charged with drug sales and,
and from work. Other common amounts of drugs than in the past. according to Judge Fitzgerald, there
problems include less time with They feel this contributed to more are few simple possession cases in
families (52 percent), lack of time lenient sentences. Cook County. These two reasons
and facilities for breaks (48 percent), help explain why most defendants
the fast pace (47 percent), and isola- The willingness of the prosecutor to are routinely placed on probation
tion from daytime colleagues and plea bargain on drug cases may have without a treatment condition.
staff meeting times (35 percent). been a factor as well. Ultimately,
whether the change in sentence dis-
This is not to say that there are not position appears troubling depends Conclusion
some perceived benefits from work- on what one thinks is the appropri-
ing in drug night court. The most
commonly mentioned are increased
autonomy and lack of interruptions
(together reported by 58 percent of
ate sentence for drug offenders. If
one believes probation is the best
response in many cases, the in-
creased use of probation by the drug
I n light of the findings,
making existing courtrooms
serve double duty by adding
late afternoon or early evening shifts
to adjudicate narcotics cases is a
staff). Still, even though most night night courts can be viewed as a posi-
viable and less costly alternative to
staff are volunteers, 70 percent tive move away from the unduly
constructing new buildings and
stated that they would prefer to harsh sentences of the past. On the
hiring additional personnel. Prior to
work days. Recruiting staff and sus- other hand, if one believes heavy developing a plan to implement the
taining morale and efficiency clearly reliance on probation is inappropri-
drug night court concept, court lead-
are important challenges to any ju- ate for many drug offenders, the
ers should evaluate issues concern-
risdiction considering nighttime increased use of probation will be
ing practicality, efficiency, and
operations. viewed as negative and “giving
quality of justice, among others. The
away the courthouse.”
The leniency issue. No changes success of court leaders in Cook
were observed in the rate at which The treatment issue. No lesser em- County, Illinois, shows that drug
suppression and other motions were phasis on drug treatment for narcot- night courts are a realistic, efficient,
and cost-effective approach available
right now for replication in other
jurisdictions to manage the increas-
ing volume of drug-related cases.
No lesser emphasis on drug
For court officials and others inter-
treatment for narcotics offenders ested in the operation of the drug
night courts, especially those estab-
was found after the drug night lished by the Circuit Court of Cook
courts were established. County, Illinois, BJA is publishing a

† TASC (Treatment Alternatives to Street

Crime) is a program started in 1972 and
filed as a result of the drug night ics offenders was found after the sponsored primarily by the Bureau of Justice
courts. But increased leniency did drug night courts were established. Assistance. The program attempts to reduce
criminality by using pressures available
appear to be a factor in narcotics But that is cold comfort inasmuch as through the criminal justice system to
cases once the drug night courts just 4 percent of convicted offenders motivate drug-dependent offenders to
opened: The percentage of convicted were sentenced to treatment both undergo treatment for substance abuse.

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new monograph, Assessment of the officials in developing a strategy for
Feasibility of Drug Night Courts the implementation, operation, and Prepared under grant number 91–DD–
(NCJ 142415). In it, the researchers management of a night drug court, CX–K045 awarded by the Bureau of Jus-
describe Cook County’s drug night including policies, procedures, and tice Assistance, U.S. Department of
Justice, to the American Bar Association.
courts in more detail. Results of training techniques to support the Opinions or points of view expressed in
interviews with Cook County offi- operation. this document are those of the authors
cials are presented that focus on and do not necessarily reflect the official
night staffing issues and discuss For more information on the avail- position or policies of the U.S. Depart-
analyses of data collected from case ability of these BJA publications, ment of Justice, the American Bar Asso-
ciation, or the ABA’s Criminal Justice
records. These analyses shed light readers may call the BJA Clearing- Section, which conducted this project in
on the questions of efficiency and house, toll free, at 1–800–688–4252 or cooperation with Loyola University of
quality of justice in the drug night contact: Chicago. The Bureau of Justice Assistance
courts. Subsequent sections include is a component of the Office of Justice
Charles M. Hollis, Chief Programs, which also includes the Bureau
results of a survey conducted with of Justice Statistics, the National Institute
staff: judges, prosecutors, public Court/Prosecution Branch
of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice
defenders, probation officers, and Bureau of Justice Assistance and Delinquency Prevention, and the Of-
court clerks. Telephone 202–514–5943 fice for Victims of Crime.

A second monograph, Drug Night

Courts: The Cook County Experience NCJ 142725
(NCJ 147815), will assist court
(Reprinted December 1994)

As part of our ongoing effort to disseminate up- neighborhoods be provided the means for mak-
to-date information to the criminal justice field, ing wise, informed decisions. Our experience
the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) releases working with State and local law enforcement has
this, the inaugural issue of our Bulletin series. The taught us that this capability is improved when
purpose of the Bulletin is to identify new and State and local decisionmakers are provided the
emerging issues and to highlight innovative and opportunity to choose from the broadest possible
progressive ideas and approaches useful to the array of crime control strategies, tailoring their
criminal justice system. Many of the topics dis- approaches to their local situation and environ-
cussed in the bulletins will be covered later in ment. BJA, therefore, is pleased to launch this
greater detail in our Program Briefs, Monographs, new series and will strive to keep criminal justice
Fact Sheets, Implementation Manuals, and other practitioners apprised of new developments, tech-
publications. niques, and approaches on a regular basis.

Publication and dissemination of information

about innovative practices and other information
useful to criminal justice practitioners and policy-
makers are important facets of BJA's mission, as
mandated by the Omnibus Crime Control and
Safe Streets Act of 1968, as amended. It is impor- Jack A. Nadol
tant that those charged with responsibility for en- Acting Director
suring the safety of our streets and

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