Zone system a dramatic shake-up for Philadelphia courts

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"We have a broken system," says Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, shown announcing the new zoning system Thursday. "We have the highest rate of cases discharged for lack of prosecution. . . . We're trying to fix it."

For decades in Philadelphia, as in most big cities, the District Attorney's Office has deployed staff on a "horizontal" basis, with different prosecutors picking up cases at each step in the process.

Some prosecutors handle preliminary hearings, the critical sessions at which Municipal Court judges decide whether enough evidence exists to hold someone for a full trial. Others handle routine trials. Still others try the most complex or violent cases.

In the jargon of prosecutors, they "work the room," their assigned courtroom, rather than work cases. This horizontal method is the norm in most big cities. Like a factory assembly line, it is cheaper to operate.

But starting Monday in Philadelphia, neighborhood teams of prosecutors, all assigned to the same floor at the Criminal Justice Center in Center City, will handle most cases from start to finish.

This shake-up in the way local courts are run - one of the most dramatic in years - will result in closer prosecutor cooperation with neighborhoods, less witness intimidation, and, finally, more convictions, predicts District Attorney Seth Williams.

"We have a broken system. We have the highest rate of cases discharged for lack of prosecution. That should sicken and disgust everyone in the city of Philadelphia," he said. "We're trying to fix it."

Williams' "zone court" approach breaks the city into six zones conforming to police detective divisions, and each now gets its own floor at the Criminal Justice Center, known as the CJC. Preliminary hearings - more than half of which were held in police districts around the city - will be consolidated at a central location.

The centralization is backed by Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and fellow Justice Seamus P. McCaffery, a former Philadelphia homicide detective and top Municipal Court judge.

"Nobody has ever tried to undertake anything of this magnitude," McCaffery said.

The two justices have been leading a campaign to overhaul the Philadelphia courts in response to an Inquirer series, published in December, called "Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied."

The series reported that in Philadelphia, defendants charged with violent crimes were escaping conviction in nearly two-thirds of all cases. Citing comparative federal studies, the paper reported that Philadelphia had the nation's lowest felony-conviction rate among large cities.

Of cases that failed, 84 percent died in Municipal Court - the target of the new overhaul. The change will more than double the Municipal Court preliminary hearings held weekly in the main courthouse.

Currently, about 520 are scheduled weekly at the CJC and about 750 at five neighborhood police stations. Starting Monday, those 750 will join the others at the CJC.

Williams, who took office in January, is also overhauling his office as part of the plan. He has reassigned more than 80 prosecutors - about a quarter of his staff - to teams that will pursue cases on a neighborhood basis.

Williams said he had selected many of the prosecutors for the six teams based on their ties to their assigned neighborhood. For instance, homicide-unit prosecutor Michael Barry, who will head the Center City team, is the son of a longtime Philadelphia police detective whose turf was downtown.

"They have connections with the community. They know how to pronounce the names of the streets," Williams said. "They know already the warring factions."

Not all cases will be divvied up along neighborhood lines. Certain key crimes, including homicide, domestic violence, and sex assault, will continue to be tried separately by elite units in courtrooms that will take in cases citywide. The office also has staff assigned to special appellate, legislative, juvenile, and administrative units.

In going to a "vertical" mode, Williams is adapting his staff to the model already followed by defense lawyers, who work a case from start to finish. Too often now, he said, they prevail "because they know more about the case - and the D.A. is a different D.A. every time."

While court officials say they support the zone approach, they acknowledge it will put the courthouse to a severe test. The CJC has long been notorious for the press of humanity - defendants, victims, witnesses, police officers, and lawyers - that clogs its lobby and jams into its six public elevators.

D. Webster Keogh, the administrative judge of Common Pleas Court, said his staff had to reassign courtrooms to 32 of the 42 Common Pleas Court judges for criminal cases.

"It's the biggest change, the biggest upheaval, since we moved from City Hall to the CJC," Keogh said, referring to the opening of the Criminal Justice Center 15 years ago.

In an interview, courts administrator David C. Lawrence and his top aides ticked off a number of changes, both planned and already under way, that they said should reduce the congestion.

For starters, they are staggering the start of court - Municipal Court preliminary hearings at 8 a.m., Common Pleas Court trials at 9.

They are also assigning walkie-talkie-equipped personnel to operate three of the elevators during the crush. The idea is to turn them into expresses for designated floors.

Perhaps more significant, they noted that both the courts and the District Attorney's Office had taken steps to reduce the courts' caseload and the pattern of callbacks for witnesses.

To remove a big logjam in the system, Lawrence, Keogh, and Keogh's top aide, Joseph A. Lanzalotti, implemented a major change last year by establishing what they called "discovery court."

There, a judge rides herd to make sure that discovery - a legal term describing key evidence that by law needs to be disclosed before trial - is passed back and forth between prosecutors and defense lawyers on time.

Last year, as many as 70 percent of cases were bogged down by breakdowns in this exchange. That rate has been cut to 20 percent, speeding up disposals of cases, Lanzalotti said.

To help out zone court, Castille and McCaffery are pushing through a rule change that should reduce the sheer number of people in the CJC. Under their pending policy, victims of property crimes would not need to testify in preliminary hearings, and police could appear on their behalf.

With more than 7,000 theft cases brought yearly, this could do a lot to reduce congestion.

Williams also has taken steps to cut the caseload. In June, he administratively reduced penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. This is expected to divert 3,000 such cases annually from court - 5 percent of the caseload of almost 60,000 misdemeanors and felonies.

Williams is also implementing a system of offering defendants written guilty-plea offers soon after arrests.

Already, he has struck far more deals than his veteran predecessor, Lynne M. Abraham. According to figures supplied by the courts, Williams' prosecutors have negotiated an average of 626 pleas a month this year, a big jump from the average of 516 a month last year under Abraham.

Williams' office says it is making realistic offers early on to defendants, coupled with a warning that the deal will get worse or disappear if they hold out.

Ronald L. Greenblatt, a leader in the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he welcomed the move to schedule neighborhood cases on the same floor.

"You know where you're going to be. You know what judges you're dealing with," he said. "There are certain economies of scale with the police."

That said, Greenblatt added that he was worried about the demand on the CJC. "I do have reservations about whether the building has the physical structure to accommodate all the preliminary hearings," he said. "The building is already overcrowded."

With one brief exception, a big share of preliminary hearings have been held at district police stations since 1998.

The exception was in 2002, when McCaffery was administrative judge of Municipal Court.

He ordered the hearings centralized at the CJC, but the state Supreme Court reversed him after only three months, amid complaints about congestion at the CJC and from victim-assistance groups about witnesses' having to travel to Center City.

McCaffery said the shift would stick this time.

"The last time around, it was just one MC judge - yours truly - trying to do this. People didn't like it, and everybody dragged their feet," he said. "The difference now is that the same MC judge is a Supreme Court justice, with the chief and all of the court behind me."


To read The Inquirer's project on Philadelphia's criminal-justice system, which includes interactive media and follow-up articles, go to www.philly.com/courts


Contact staff writer Craig R. McCoy at 215-854-4821 or cmccoy@phillynews.com.