Allegheny County's Phoenix Court gives the lie to the adage that the wheels of justice turn slowly.
The special court, modeled after one in Arizona, uses two judges to process minor offenses in a way that reduces the criminal court backlog, which hovered at 15,000 cases in 2009 and has fallen since by 38 percent. The typical charges include retail theft, DUI and drug possession; the crimes do not usually have individual victims and the sentences are often probation.
From beginning to end, a case on the Phoenix Court's docket can take as few as five minutes to resolve. According to a story Sunday by the Post-Gazette's Paula Reed Ward, the cases receive a brief summary in court by the prosecutor, some explanation by the defense lawyer, a possible statement of contrition by the person charged and a previously arranged sentence pronounced by the judge. You're in, you're out, justice is done.
But it doesn't happen capriciously. Administrative Judge Jeffrey Manning of criminal court said the success is due to streamlined programs, close supervision and dedication by the district attorney's office, defense counsel, the probation office and the court.
With that kind of joint effort, the average time that criminal cases spend in the system, from charge to disposition, has been cut from 481 days to 209. Better yet, Judge Manning says, "We're releasing back into society a better inmate than was arrested."
If that's the case, then this program, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, has much to show other courts.