Allegheny County's court programs expedite cases, cut backlog

'We can statistically prove we are accomplishing a huge amount'

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Some of the criminal cases in Allegheny County's Phoenix Court docket take as little as five minutes from start to finish.

A quick summary of the allegations by the prosecutor, a few words of explanation from the defense attorney, maybe a statement of remorse from the defendant and an agreed-upon sentence doled out by the judge.

Three days a week, in two different courtrooms, the same scenario plays itself out over and over again. This year, it is expected that 6,000 cases will be adjudicated in this process alone in the Allegheny County criminal court system.

And just like that, a backlog of nearly 15,000 cases four years ago has been reduced by almost half, and the average time from charge to disposition has dropped from 481 days to 209.

Not only that, but a number of specialty courts rolled out over the past several years -- including Mental Health, DUI, Drug, Veteran's, Sex Offender and even one for Prostitution -- have contributed, officials say, to a decrease in recidivism while lowering the population at the jail.

PG graphic: Backlogged cases reduced
(Click image for larger version)

"We can statistically prove we are accomplishing a huge amount," said Administrative Judge Jeffrey A. Manning of Allegheny County Common Pleas Criminal Court. "There is nothing better a criminal justice system can do than to actually rehabilitate an inmate.

"We're releasing back into society a better inmate than was arrested."

Judge Manning attributes the success to streamlined programs, intensive supervision and reviews in the specialty courts and dedicated partners through the district attorney's office, defense bar, probation offices and bench.

"None of this would have been able to be accomplished without cooperation," he said. "What we're doing in Allegheny County is remarkable."

To be sure, among the largest five counties in the state, Allegheny has had the largest decrease in its case backlog -- 38 percent since 2009.

"Over the last four years, Allegheny County court officials have improved the management of their criminal caseload," said Kim Nieves, director of research and statistics for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. "When we see this type of shift in the inventory statistics, it typically reflects positive changes occurring in case management."

Thomas McCaffrey, the criminal court administrator, said the numbers of newly filed cases in Allegheny County has remained between 16,000 and 20,000 for several years. But 14 of 16 judges assigned to criminal court disposed of more than 100 percent of the cases assigned to them last year, allowing them to cut into the backlog.

"The public is entitled to a swift, fair and transparent process for all parties involved," Mr. McCaffrey said. "Victims of crime should not have to endure multiple postponements and their case lingering in the system for months or years without justice. And conversely, the accused should not have to endure the same thing."

Rising up like a Phoenix

In 2008, Allegheny County court officials traveled to Maricopa County, Ariz., to learn about a program used there to process nonviolent, misdemeanor cases.

They brought the idea home with them, and in 2010 named the local version, with two dedicated judges, Phoenix Court.

What they learned later was that the looming tower on the Grant Street side of the Allegheny County Courthouse -- completed in 1888 after the first one burned six years earlier -- is named the Phoenix Tower.

In the local program, typical charges heard on the Phoenix docket include retail theft, DUI and drug possession. They generally do not involve individual victims, and sentences are often probation.

"The cases we're screening for Phoenix -- it's clear they committed the crimes, and they're relatively minor cases," said District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.

Usually, when a case is assigned to the Phoenix docket, the two sides have a pre-negotiated plea, and the case quickly moves to fruition.

"Basically, the Phoenix docket allows you to cut to the chase," said defense attorney Owen M. Seman. "You know what the DA will offer is your best-case scenario."

He estimated that a case assigned to the Phoenix docket is completed at least three to four months faster than taking the traditional route.

"Any criminal case is serious -- especially to the person going through it," Mr. Seman said. But, he continued, the cases in Phoenix Court "are not complex cases, are not discovery-intense cases.

"While it streamlines the process, it doesn't handicap you from going to trial."

If a defendant decides not to take the plea offered, the case is simply scheduled for trial.

"Anybody coming in can choose the path their cases go," Mr. McCaffrey said. "Both parties are engaged. Everybody is getting -- and feels like they're getting -- a just result."

Judge Thomas E. Flaherty -- one of the two judges assigned to the Phoenix Court -- estimated that only about 10 percent of the defendants assigned to the docket ultimately decide they want to go to trial.

"I think we have it down like clockwork," Judge Flaherty said. "It's very efficient.

"Without it, we would sink under the weight of cases. We couldn't efficiently and effectively administer justice."

Added Judge Manning, "We're trying to be not just fast, but fast and fair."

The Phoenix docket -- as well as all the specialty courts -- have individual prosecutors assigned to them, Mr. Zappala said.

"It promotes continuity in terms of disposition," he said.

It also means that the lawyers are able to spend additional time on their complex cases.

"It does give us the chance to focus more on quality," Mr. Zappala said.

Mr. McCaffrey agreed.

"It allows the bench to spend more time on the jury or bench trials that come before them."

Specialty courts

The very first specialty court in Allegheny County -- Drug Court -- was created in 1998.

Judge Lester G. Nauhaus continues to preside over it, and at the end of 2012, 303 defendants were enrolled.

That year, according to court statistics, 95.4 percent of Drug Court participants did not have any new charges filed while active in the program, making the recidivism rate in that time period just 4.6 percent, officials said.

They also touted a study of graduates from 2005 to 2008, showing that three years after successfully completing the program, 78 percent had remained crime-free.

"By offering court-monitored treatment, the Drug Court team aims to break the damaging and costly cycle of addiction, crime and incarceration," reads a summary of the program.

Following the creation of Drug Court, Allegheny County officials created six additional specialty programs. They focus on domestic violence, DUI, mental illness, sex offenders, prostitution and veterans who find themselves facing criminal charges.

All of the programs, court administrators are quick to point out, are labor intensive -- often requiring monthly review hearings for every individual defendant assigned to the docket.

They are not designed to be quick and efficient like the Phoenix docket, said Mr. McCaffrey.

But because of the close monitoring, he continued, "the success rate is phenomenal.

"The bench stays involved with the supervision of the case, which makes the defendant accountable to the judge face-to-face.

"That's what makes it incredibly effective."

Judge Beth A. Lazzara has handled mental health court since 2012 and said it's the most rewarding part of her job.

"Everybody is really committed to helping these people change their lives and willing to put in the time and effort to make that happen," she said. "They keep these folks on the path to success. There's a real personal relationship."

Defendants meet with probation officers, staff from Justice Related Services and the judge at regular intervals.

"That increased review with everyone is what keeps them really on track. We can catch things faster and react faster."

There are about 290 people enrolled in Mental Health Court, and 16 are expected to graduate from the program on Sept. 23.

Defendants in the specialty courts often have underlying problems -- addiction or mental illness -- that lead to the charged criminal behavior.

"DUI court takes forever [to complete], but that's the point," Mr. Semen said, "to get the people involved the treatment they need. It's very intensive. This is a no-joke program."

By having a program that focuses on a defendant receiving treatment, the potential for success dramatically increases, Mr. McCaffrey said.

"You get the biggest bang for your buck addressing the moderate or high-risk offender because that's the group committing most of the crime," he said. "That's where you put your resources if you want to reduce the crime rate."


Paula Reed Ward:, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard.


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