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Appellate courts represent a key component of criminal case processing. Appeals are the primary means by which appellate courts can oversee the trial process, correcting and reversing errors or mistakes at the trial court level. By functioning as a reviewing body, appellate courts ensure that trial courts are applying the law correctly and not making capricious or erroneous decisions. In addition to error correction, state appellate courts serve an important policymaking function by reviewing cases with broad implications for a state’s legal system. For defendants facing sentences of life imprisonment or the death penalty, state appellate courts offer an important means for petitioning the trial courts to reverse or modify their sentencing decisions. Despite the significant role of appellate courts in correcting errors at the trial court level—making decisions that have major impacts on a state’s legal and policymaking environment, and assuring that the criminal laws are applied in a just, fair, and evenhanded manner—there have been few systematic attempts to examine criminal case processing in state appellate courts.
In 2008, BJS solicited proposals to design and develop a survey focusing on criminal cases appealed from trial courts to state intermediate appellate courts and/or courts of last resort. In 2010, BJS provided funding to finalize the sampling design and survey development, and to administer the criminal appeals survey. The current project will examine criminal appeals disposed in calendar year 2010 in a national sample of intermediate appellate courts and courts of last resort. The project will aim to obtain information on certain key case characteristics including the types of criminal cases appealed after trial to an intermediate appellate court or court of last resort, the impact of the appellate process on trial court outcomes, the extent that appellate claims are dismissed or withdrawn before being decided on the merits, the types of legal issues raised on appeal, the number of appeals ending in a full opinion, and the rate of judicial dissent at the appellate level.
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