Closed Criminal Plea and Sentencing Proceedings by U.S. Attorneys

GGD-83-56: Published: Apr 21, 1983. Publicly Released: May 16, 1983.

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In response to a congressional request, GAO examined the Department of Justice's practice of conducting criminal plea and sentencing proceedings in closed district court sessions.

Justice's regulations provide a presumption that judicial proceedings will be open to the public unless closure is essential to the interests of justice. Government attorneys must obtain permission from Justice in criminal cases before seeking or agreeing to closure. GAO found that the closure of criminal plea and sentencing proceedings was not common and was generally used only to protect cooperating defendants or ongoing investigations. Justice officials reported that there is no legal authority to close a proceeding, but judges base closure decisions on case law and a common-sense perspective of whether it is necessary and justified. GAO found that only 1 of the 13 U.S. Attorneys' Offices contacted used closed proceedings extensively. The other 12 districts contacted did not use closure proceedings often. GAO also found that, while Justice is cautious and deliberate in approving closed proceedings, it does not have a centralized monitoring system to ensure that cases approved for closure are unsealed as soon as possible. Further, while all U.S. attorneys included in the GAO evaluation realize that closure approval is necessary, they had differing views as to what other proceedings required approval prior to seeking or agreeing to closure. GAO has advised the Attorney General that these matters warrant his attention.

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