In Phila. courts, reforms take hold

Bail collections are up. Caseloads down. A report credits changes prompted by an Inquirer series.

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A Philadelphia criminal justice system once in crisis has begun to transform itself.

Judges are deciding more cases on their merits. Formerly unmanageable caseloads are in a steep decline. And bail collections, anemic for decades, are on the rise.

With gamesmanship by defense lawyers curtailed, cases are going to trial more swiftly. People facing minor offenses - notably, marijuana cases by the thousands - are being diverted into special programs, freeing prosecutors and judges to concentrate on more serious crimes. And in a major change, victims of property crimes are being spared from testifying at early court hearings; police are taking the stand in their stead.

Those are among the reforms documented by an independent consultant appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to assess the judicial system's performance and monitor an overhaul begun after The Inquirer reported that the city courts were in deep disarray.

The consultants' 54-page study concludes that sweeping changes in court rules adopted in the 18 months since the newspaper's reporting have yielded gains large and small. The Inquirer obtained an advance copy of the study, which is to be officially released Monday.

"This shows you can turn around the Titanic," said Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, an architect of many changes enacted in response to the newspaper's stories.

"The goal was to take a system in crisis and change it dramatically," said Justice Seamus McCaffery, who joined Castille in pushing for reform. "Once we saw the stories, it was just fast and furious. It was pedal to the metal."

The early results, according to the report, show a system undergoing significant transformation:

Municipal Court judges in Philadelphia are holding more defendants for trial in the upper Common Pleas Court. The share of cases being held for trial rose from 49 percent in 2007 to 57 percent so far this year.

Cases dismissed or withdrawn with no ruling on their merits fell from 42 percent in 2007 to 29 percent this year.

The number of cases to go forward on the first court date is on the rise - 27 percent last year, up from 19 percent in 2009. This reverses a long pattern of judges' repeatedly postponing court hearings, a process that has discouraged witnesses and caused thousands of cases a year to collapse.

The total caseload is declining, offering a prospect of relief to an overburdened system. In part, this reflects a decision by District Attorney Seth Williams to be more selective in filing felony charges. Williams brought 500 fewer cases last year than his predecessor, Lynne M. Abraham, in her final year.

In a series of stories published in December 2009, The Inquirer showed a court system plagued by low conviction rates, a high number of dismissals, rampant witness intimidation, and a massive fugitive problem.

The facts were stark: Philadelphia defendants were escaping conviction with stunning regularity. People charged with violent crime were walking free on all charges in nearly two-thirds of all cases. Among the nation's large urban counties, the city had the lowest felony conviction rate.

In an analysis of 31,000 criminal cases, the newspaper found that only one in 10 people charged with gun assault was convicted of that charge. Only two in 10 accused armed robbers were convicted of armed robbery.

Top court officials, including Castille, initially reacted skeptically. Still, he and McCaffery appointed a 13-member blue-ribbon panel of judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, academic experts, and more to dig into the issues the newspaper had raised.

They also hired an outside consultant, Chadwick Associates Inc., to study the newspaper's analysis and confirm or refute its findings.

William G. Chadwick, a former top city prosecutor, and his associate Laura A. Linton conducted their own analysis of criminal-case outcomes and verified the newspaper's findings.

"Chadwick's review confirmed that The Inquirer's methodology was sound, that its calculations of withdrawal, dismissal, and conviction rates were accurate, and that its conclusions drawn from the court data about the performance of the criminal court system was similarly accurate," the report said.

The consultants also examined the impact of a series of changes in courtroom procedures for judges and lawyers.

Castille and McCaffery imposed new rules giving prosecutors more time to prepare cases and barring judges from dismissing cases early in the day.

In tandem with the District Attorney's Office, they reorganized the courthouse so that prosecutors, judges, and police officers are assigned to cases on a neighborhood basis. That ended a long-standing practice of holding preliminary hearings in police districts scattered around the city, leaving officers struggling to get from place to place to testify.

Court administrators also reversed decades of inaction by moving to pursue some of the $1 billion in forfeited bail owed by 210,000 debtors.

"Progress has been made," the report says. "Empirical evidence is beginning to show progress in improving the performance of Philadelphia's criminal court system.

At the same time, the report said, "much remains to be done."

In separate interviews, Castille, a former Philadelphia district attorney, and McCaffery, a former homicide detective who served as administrative judge of Philadelphia Municipal Court, said more fixes were coming.

They promised a thorough overhaul of the city's dysfunctional bail system. "Bail is our next big task," McCaffery said.

In its four-part series, The Inquirer reported that the city had a staggering 47,000 fugitives from court, $1 billion in uncollected bail, and a fugitive rate that was among the worst in the nation.

The high court is also studying a dramatic proposal to routinely hold trials in absentia for defendants who run.

To combat witness intimidation, the Supreme Court is also reviewing whether to bring back indicting grand juries - a step that would permit frightened witnesses to give secret testimony against the most violent offenders before trial.

And in another step aimed at reducing witness threats, the justices are pondering whether cameras should be installed in courtrooms - trained on spectators, not on the unfolding trial.

Advocates say that would deter menacing practices such as pantomimed threats to witnesses or the taking of their pictures with cell phones.

In the report, Chadwick and Linton presented a quiet indictment of a court system that had lost sight of its core mission of delivering justice.

"Court officials were focused primarily on managing their caseloads and secondarily on holding perpetrators of crimes accountable for their offenses," the report said.

Castille and McCaffery say the problem was deeply ingrained.

"We're trying to change the culture," Castille said. "The culture was, 'Get rid of these things, move it.' "

The chief justice said his goal was to have more cases decided by a weighing of the evidence, rather than dismissed without any ruling on the merits.

"The fair and timely dispensation of criminal justice, that's all I'm interested in," he said.

"Some people win their cases, some people lose their cases. I could care less about that as long as we have a system that provides justice."

The Chadwick report also found that the justice system was divided into two fiefdoms - the lower Municipal Court and the upper Common Pleas Court. Judges in the lower courts decide whether there is enough evidence for a full trial in the upper courts.

That separation blinded the courts to the lack of effectiveness of the system as a whole, the report found.

"Each operates independently and . . . saw its role in isolation without reference to the whole," the report said. "As a result, no agency in the [courts] was tracking case outcomes across the two criminal divisions from arrest through case resolution."

In an interview, Chadwick, a Philadelphia prosecutor for 16 years, said his analysis had not tracked felony conviction rates.

He said his first priority was to examine preliminary hearings at the Municipal Court level, the sessions in which judges weigh whether there is enough evidence to hold defendants for trial. In its project, The Inquirer determined the vast majority of cases fall apart at that early stage.

"We basically started with the most serious problems as identified in the articles," Chadwick said. "So we zeroed in on preliminary hearings."

But he said it was crucial for the court itself to eventually begin tracking conviction figures on a crime-by-crime basis.

He said the public and government officials had a right to get such data from an impartial source - the courts.

"They have to keep score," he said.

And court administrators need to monitor the outcome of cases, he said.

"If the court sees that 100 percent of defendants are getting convicted, they know that they're running a kangaroo court," Chadwick said. "If they see, conversely, that there's a conviction rate of 10 percent, they know that they have a problem."

His consulting firm has been paid $207,000 so far for its work; Chadwick said he was unsure what his total cost would be.

In a companion analysis for the high court's reform drive, a California organization - the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics - took a look at the court system's overall management of information. It, too, found the courts wanting, buried in paper, and lacking any systemic plan for using technology.

The court system "lacks a way to measure their current performance, which makes it difficult to support any conclusions for funding about what's wrong and what is being done right," according to the consortium's report.

Chadwick was even more blunt.

Until recent reforms, he said, "they were flying blind. They had no instruments. They had no idea how they were doing, but they've made fast improvement."

In May, Castille and McCaffery attended the annual conference of the city's Municipal Court judges at a suburban conference center to preach the gospel of reform.

"We explained to them that The Inquirer came out with these statistics. I didn't believe them at first. We brought in outside experts to analyze them, and it showed that they were accurate," the chief justice said.

Most dramatically, Castille said, the series suggested the courts had "probably let some people out on the street that shouldn't be."

In effect, he and McCaffery lectured the judges on how to improve their performance.

"I told them that black robe isn't just a good job with benefits," Castille said. "You have to do something extremely important, which is to dispense justice."

 


The Inquirer Series

To read The Inquirer's investigative series on Philadelphia's criminal justice system - Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied, which was published in December 2009 and triggered sweeping changes - go to www.philly.com/courts

There, readers can also use interactive media and review scores of follow-up articles.


The Reform Initiative

After The Inquirer published an investigative series on the Philadelphia criminal justice system, Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and state Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery in January 2010 appointed a volunteer panel to study the issues raised in the series.

The members are Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judges John L. Braxton and Benjamin Lerner; former Common Pleas Court Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes; Bucks County Court Judge Alan M. Rubenstein; former Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor, now a county commissioner; lawyers Thomas A. Bello, Roy DeCaro, and Charles J. Grant; Syndi L. Guido, deputy counsel for the state police; Steven L. Chanenson, Villanova University associate dean and law professor; lawyers Walter M. Phillips Jr., former chairman of the Pennsylvania Committee on Crime and Deliquency, and Michael Kane, its former executive director; and David L. Lawrence, former administrator of Philadelphia courts.

Serving as expert consultants were William G. Chadwick, a former top city prosecutor, and project director Laura A. Linton.


Coming Monday: Punishment for Bail Jumpers?

The Philadelphia criminal-justice system should crack down on fugitives who duck court by jailing them in newly freed-up cells in city prisons and trying others in absentia, according to a pair of reports commissioned by the state Supreme Court.

"One of the key reasons for Philadelphia's high failure-to-appear rate is that there are few meaningful consequences for defendants who fail to appear," said one report.

In a companion analysis, experts with the Pretrial Justice Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, said the city courts must impose "meaningful, swift and certain" punishment on those who skip court and default on bail.


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Contact staff writer Nancy Phillips at 215-854-2254, nphillips@phillynews.com, or @PhillipsNancy on Twitter.

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