Cases are moving faster through Lancaster County Court since a procedural overhaul in 2012 modernized the system to meet today’s demands.
In 2011, nearly 25 percent of the county’s criminal caseload – those involving felony and misdemeanor charges – were over a year old. That percentage has been trimmed to just 8 percent by 2014, the most recent annual analysis released by Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
The statewide average in 2014 for criminal cases a year or older is 13.4 percent.
The sweeping changes involved county judges keeping closer watch over cases, regularly checking in with attorneys on progress and disposition plans moving forward.
There are even more changes on tap for 2017, when a new individual assignment system is expected to further expedite cases.
The end goals being to: speed up the process for victims and witnesses; provide faster resolutions for defendants; and save taxpayer money.
The longer a case languishes in the system, the more taxpayer dollars go toward efforts to dispose of it.
“We took a giant step a few years ago toward providing swifter justice for victims and their families, but we are united in our commitment to do even better,” District Attorney Craig Stedman said this week. “The upcoming changes reflect system-wide collaboration and will result in a more efficient criminal-justice system.”
The proposed new system, as conceived of by President Judge Reinaker and District Attorney Stedman, will work this way:
- A criminal case will be assigned to a county judge as soon as it comes to the common pleas level and stays with that judge through disposition.
- Prosecutors and public defenders will be broken into teams and assigned to specific judges.
- Some special cases, such as homicides and child sex abuse, will follow the assigned prosecutor.
- The judges will hold status and pre-trial conferences with their attorney teams to ensure the cases are progressing without undue delay.
- The same cases will no longer be subject to appearing before multiple judges.
President Judge Dennis Reinaker and District Attorney Stedman created the new system model, with feedback from attorneys and other court personnel, and after looking at what has been successful elsewhere. The system borrows much from Berks County while adjusting for Lancaster’s needs.
“I’m confident that these new procedures will result in even greater improvements and efficiencies to the criminal justice system in Lancaster County,” Reinaker said.
These improvements are the next logical step after some sweeping changes were made in 2012 when the courts, under then-President Judge Joseph Madenspacher, and District Attorney Stedman worked together to formulate and enact a process which has had demonstrable success.
In 2011, there were 4,187 cases pending in county court, beyond the district court level. Over 35 percent (1,518) of those cases were beyond 8 months’ old, but by 2014, that figure had been reduced to 16 percent (425) of cases. The state average in 2014 for cases of that age is 22.8 percent.
Lancaster County’s numbers are expected to shrink even more in 2015 and this year, due to DUI Central Court, implemented in mid-2015, resulting in quicker dispositions of those cases.
“The judges really stepped up to the challenges with a renewed commitment to efficiency,” District Attorney Stedman said.
The improved efficiency has had a countywide domino effect, some measurable in dollars and cents.
Faster disposition means inmates have shorter stays at Lancaster County Prison, where it costs about $70 a day to house a single inmate.
Exact savings regarding inmate housing isn’t available, but this hypothetical provides an estimate basis:
If 1,000 inmates serve just one month less at Lancaster County Prison - because of quicker dispositions to their cases – that’s a savings of over $2 million.
As a result, the reforms over the past few years have saved taxpayers many millions of dollars.
“We have been able to achieve these results without adding any full-time prosecutors since I took office,” Stedman said. “Despite the fact that caseloads have gone up and the laws are increasingly complicated, my staff has done a tremendous job cutting the backlog of cases and moving cases much more efficiently than before.”
Starting next year, four two-judge teams will be assigned cases based on groupings of caseloads from four district judges per team.
Hypothetically, the team of County Judge A and County Judge B will receive cases from District Judges A, B, C, and D.
Reinaker is bunching the district judges so that all four groupings’ caseloads will be similar in number.
(Photo courtesy of Bob Devonshire.)
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