Judge Lerner excited about move to Kenney administration

Benjamin Lerner, 75, a Common Pleas Court judge, was named deputy managing director for criminal justice, a new position.

For 16 years, Ben Lerner has been a witness to almost every horror Philadelphians have perpetrated against each other.

As the Common Pleas Court judge in charge of what is euphemistically called the "homicide calendar room," Lerner has heard and ruled on every pretrial motion in thousands of homicides before "spinning" the cases to one of the nine judges who only preside over murder trials.

Now, at age 75, after almost 49 years as a lawyer and 20 on the bench, Lerner has the opportunity to use his experience to try to reduce crime and improve the system in which he worked.

On Feb. 18, Mayor Kenney named Lerner deputy managing director for criminal justice, a post in which he will work with the major players in the criminal justice system.

Lerner said he believes recent changes in the court system and improved cooperation among agencies involved with crime and criminal justice have created a foundation for "real criminal justice reform, more than just a phase."

Over the last few years, Philadelphia's court administrators have created specialized courts to deal with the problems of individuals who wind up in the system and to prevent them from getting rearrested.

Among these new courts is one for military veterans and people with mental health or emotional issues, as well as older programs for first offenders and drug users.

The changes are partly a move beyond pure punishment - a return to the idea that many people who commit crimes can be rehabilitated through targeted, intensive therapy and support.

But there's also a dollars-and-cents motive: the recognition that prison is the most expensive place to house people, and the worst place for those with mental health or drug and alcohol problems.

About 7,500 people are held in the Philadelphia prison system, almost 80 percent of whom await trial and were denied bail or cannot afford bail. Prison officials say it costs an average of $120 per inmate per day to house them.

Kenney said as much in naming Lerner to the new post.

Philadelphia announced last May that it was one of 20 cities to win a $150,000 planning grant from the MacArthur Foundation to develop a strategy to reduce the prison population.

In January, the city submitted a proposal to the foundation for $2 million in grants - pledging an additional $2 million in existing and new city funds - to reduce the population of 7,500 inmates in city prisons by 34 percent.

"I am confident his passion and expertise will give him the ability to build on our current momentum surrounding the MacArthur grant proposal," Kenney said.

Lerner said he believes there is bipartisan support for reducing prison populations, especially for those awaiting trial and with emotional or physical problems.

"What we tried in the '80s and '90s - this massive incarceration across the board - the overwhelming evidence is that it doesn't work," Lerner said. "It is enormously destructive to the individuals and families and the community, mostly minority communities."

Lerner said he hopes to begin his new job next week after completing work on pending cases.

A Philadelphia native, Lerner earned a bachelor's degree in political science from Brandeis University and graduated magna cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Much of his professional career - 1975 to 1990 - was as head of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, whose lawyers represent indigent people charged with crimes.

Lerner was appointed to Common Pleas Court in 1996, but failed to win a 10-year term in 1997. He was appointed again to the court, and was elected to a full term in 1999 and retained for a second full term in 2009.

Lerner was sometimes the nemesis of prosecutors who felt he brought his defender instincts into the courtroom. Lerner said he thinks people mistook courtroom courtesy for weakness.

Lerner credited his courtroom demeanor to his decision in the mid-1960s to accept a clerkship offer from U.S. District Judge Stanley A. Weigel in San Francisco.

It was an exciting time to be a young man - an East Coaster transported to the epicenter of U.S. cultural revolution. Lerner laughed as he recalled seeing Jefferson Airplane play at the storied Fillmore.

Lerner said Weigel was the most important model in his professional life, "in terms of how people should be treated in the courtroom, people who were among our most disadvantaged."

Last Friday, Lerner's last regular day as homicide calendar judge, about 50 lawyers - current and former prosecutors, current and former public defenders and private criminal lawyers - praised that temperament.

Criminal defense lawyer F. Michael Medway called Lerner a "great judge and a great teacher. You've made me a better lawyer."

Criminal defense lawyer Brian J. McMonagle recounted days when he was a homicide prosecutor in the District Attorney's Office and Lerner was chief defender.

"I can say I wasn't too fond of you back then," McMonagle told Lerner. "But we became friends and you made a big difference in my life. Cases come and go, but it's the people - this room will never, ever, ever be the same. We will never be the same."

Lerner told the crowd that he was honored to work with some of the best lawyers in Philadelphia. "We've all done a lot of good work in this room," he said.

Lerner said he is already getting documents and reports to read for his new job, although he doesn't know where his office will be in the Municipal Services Building.

One thing Lerner's new job will cost him is a chance to visit the Phillies' spring training camp in Clearwater, Fla. A baseball fanatic, Lerner has attended several "dream weekend" camps to play ball with retired players and coaches, and said he hopes to play in the 70-and-over division of the Senior World Series in Phoenix.

April is near, and Lerner said he has to make sure he's in shape for his 65-and-over senior league's weekly games.

"I'm just hoping that I'll still have time for my once-a-weekend trip to my batting cage," said Lerner, a southpaw who plays first base.

"Let me remind you - this is hardball, with 90-foot baselines," he said.

jslobodzian@phillynews.com

215-854-2985 @joeslobo

www.philly.com/crimeandpunishment