A Data-Driven Evaluation of Delays in Criminal Prosecution

Hrafnkell Hjorleifsson and Michelle Manting Ho and Christopher Prince and Achilles Edwin Alfred Saxby NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress
Mentors: Federica B. Bianco NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress
Sponsors: NYU BetaGov/Litmus and the Santa Clara District Attorney’s Office.


The District Attorney’s office of Santa Clara County, California has observed long durations for their prosecution processes. It is interested in assessing the drivers of prosecutorial delays and determining whether there is evidence of disparate treatment of accused individuals in pre-trial detention and criminal charging practices. A recent report from the county's civil grand jury found that only 47% of cases from 2013 were resolved in less than year, far less than the statwide average of 88%. We describe a visualization tool and analytical models to identify factors affecting delays in the prosecutorial process and any characteristics that are associated with disparate treatment of defendants. Using prosecutorial data from January through June of 2014, we find that the time to close the initial phase of prosecution (the entering of a plea), the initial plea entered, the type of court in which a defendant is tried and the main charged offense are important predictors of whether a case will extend beyond one year. Durations for prosecution are found not significantly different for different racial and ethnic population, and do not appear as important features in our modeling to predict case durations longer than one year. Further, we find that, in this data, 81% of felony cases were resolved in less than one year, far greater than the value reported by the civil grand jury.


In the United States, criminal cases are settled through an adversarial system between the prosecuting attorney who represents the public and the defense attorney who represents the accused. The responsibility of the District Attorney (DA) who prosecutes the case is to bring charges against the accused defendant and prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. DA performance is frequently measured by the rate of convictions, plea bargains, or diversions (Nugent-Barakove 2007). This capstone project focuses on how long it takes for felony cases to be resolved by a District Attorney's office.

This time metric is important to consider because delays in felony case resolutions, or dispositions, places a burden on government resources, leaves defendants uncertain about their futures, and prolongs the wait for closure for victims. Making the criminal justice more efficient while maintaining fairness and due process is beneficial for all parties involved. (Association 2006)

The Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) is working with Santa Clara County (SCC) in California and our project sponsor BetaGov at NYU's Marron Institute to investigate the duration and outcomes of SCC’s felony cases. In a recent report issued by the SCC Civil Grand Jury, Santa Clara County was found to be the slowest in processing felony cases in California. (Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury 2017) The SCC District Attorney’s office would like to know how delays and disparities might be explained by case characteristics such as prior convictions, charge enhancements, and defendant characteristics.

The deliverables of this capstone project are two-fold. The first is to provide District Attorneys with an interactive dashboard for exploring and visualizing case progression based on key variables such as the number of charges, number of defendants, race and age of defendant, and other case characteristics. The second is to provide an in-depth statistical analysis into what variables change the outcome and lengthen the timeline of cases.