An interview with Richard Schauffler of the National Center for State Courts
Richard Schauffler is the director of research services for the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), based in Williamsburg, Virginia. At NCSC, he directs the Court Statistics Project, which collects and analyzes state court data to develop a national perspective on the work of state courts. He is also project director for State Court Organization, which presents detailed comparative data about how state trial and appellate courts are organized and administered in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. We spoke with him recently about NCSC’s CourTools, which help courts measure their performance and assess how they are meeting the needs and expectations of customers.
Please describe the purpose and development of CourTools: What problems were you trying to help courts solve with these tools?
The 10 CourTools performance measures were developed to provide a feasible, practical set of measures grounded in balanced-scorecard management theory for the public sector. The previous 68 Trial Court Performance Standards developed by the NCSC with national participation were too many and without a strategic focus. The goal of measuring court performance was—and remains—to use outcome data to evaluate how well state courts are serving the public and their justice system partners.
CourTool 10 provides a way for trial courts to measure the average cost of processing a single case, by case type. Can you describe some ways that this tool has been used—and tell us what NCSC and courts have learned from these examples?
Measure 10, “Cost per Case,” has been used to create a simple yardstick to measure and compare costs by case type. One of the first jurisdictions that used it was California. One court discovered it was spending twice as much on traffic cases as a similar size court. When the two court managers talked, they discovered why. In one court, everyone came to dispute their tickets because they got big “discounts” for showing up and telling a story. In the other court, judges listened respectfully, but did not grant discounts as a rule. The court granting discounts discovered that the local legal culture they had created around traffic violations drove up their costs by requiring lots of staff and judge time to schedule and hear the cases. What is more, they learned that the judges were forgiving the fees, fines, and penalties without any knowledge of where that revenue was being used; they assumed incorrectly that these revenues did not support the court’s programs.
What challenges do you typically see when courts try to implement CourTool 10—and what suggestions would you give for dealing with those challenges?
One of the main challenges is the automatic assumption that if you measure cost, the intent must be to drive costs lower, or at least never to let them rise. That is not the purpose of this measure. Managing performance is a set of trade-offs, and cost provides one input for that managerial decision. Creating an alternative dispute resolution program will cost money, but it may result in more timely resolution of cases and greater litigant satisfaction. So although cost per case will rise, the other measures of “Time to Disposition” and “Access & Fairness” will show what the court is getting for its investment. Thus, cost is a starting point—not an end point—in managing performance.
Getting good cost and operational information about courts is important when conducting cost-benefit studies, whether the studies focus on court-initiated activities like drug courts or initiatives like sentencing reforms, which also affect courts. What useful cost-benefit studies related to courts have you seen? What court-related cost-benefit studies do you think ought to be done?
Thus far, much of the best work has been done in a limited number of areas. First, people evaluated the costs, avoided costs, and benefits of drug courts, community courts like the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn, and other problem-solving courts.
The second area of concentration has been in criminal dockets where methods are being sought to manage the high costs of incarceration and allocate scarce treatment resources; here, the Harris County Criminal Courts at Law in Texas come to mind. In that court, a business intelligence system produces reports that inform judges about which treatments—particularly residential treatment programs for alcoholism—will be most effective based on the characteristics of the defendant and the facts of the case. This is based on historical analytics that link prior adjudications to a defendant’s recidivism and criminal history.
In terms of the near future, I think the goal of all courts should be to link performance measurement, resource allocation, and cost data in a coherent management framework more broadly. The solution to improving performance is not always adding more resources and spending more; sometimes it is simply a matter of changing practices. This is why it is important to link the three elements together. Sometimes spending less, but spending it more effectively, produces better results.
How did you get involved in this work?
I participated in the development of CourTools first as a researcher at the California Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). We were working with the National Center for State Courts on workload assessment, and trying to link staff and judicial resources to budgets—and ultimately to court performance more broadly. At that time, the California AOC was exploring how to link performance to its measures of cost and workload. Unfortunately, due to a variety of factors, we were not able to complete this work. Later, I joined the NCSC and continued working with the team here to help state courts implement CourTools and to develop additional measures and tools for both trial and appellate courts.
For people who are interested in learning more about cost-benefit work [related to state courts], what resources do you recommend?
I think the recent Vera Institute of Justice publication A Guide to Calculating Justice-System Marginal Costs is a great place to start; it is well written and addresses technical issues in a practical and understandable way. For a different approach to modeling costs when actual expenditures are not known, people may want to read our work on modeling the costs of civil litigation.