While federal and state constitutions and statutes guarantee criminal defendants a speedy trial, in practice these rights are exceedingly difficult to enforce. Felony criminal cases can be tied up in court for years. Defendants and victims return to court repeatedly, but progress in resolving their cases is slow.

This Article uses unique data from Cook County, Illinois, to illuminate a complicated and path-dependent system of delay in the Criminal Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County. Our analysis demonstrates that delay is not only pervasive, but also central to how this criminal court system functions.

The Article first reviews prior work on case-processing delays. Second, the Article uses theories of path dependency to explain case delay in the Cook County criminal courts, one of the largest criminal courts in the world. Third, the Article brings to bear three dimensions of system-wide and nuanced observational data to describe felony case-processing delays in Cook County’s criminal courts. Fourth, the Article analyzes these data to differentiate types of delays, demonstrate inertia in the face of these delays, and finally, show how courts depend on delays to keep the system running. The Article concludes by discussing strategies to eliminate specific types of delays, but underscoring how the relationships among different court actors must change to address the problem of delay.

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