Greenleaf calls for inquiry into Phila. courts

Posted: May 13, 2010

Saying the Philadelphia criminal justice system is "in disarray," State Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf and eight fellow senators on Wednesday proposed to create a Senate advisory panel to investigate the city courts and recommend reforms in laws and court rules.

Greenleaf said he was acting in response to an Inquirer series on the city courts that he said "raised serious concerns."

As the newspaper reported in a series of articles in December, the Philadelphia courts are plagued by low conviction rates, rampant witness intimidation, a massive fugitive problem, and the dismissal of thousands of cases each year without a ruling on the merits.

"The biggest problem was the ineffectiveness of the criminal justice system," said Greenleaf, a veteran Republican who represents parts of Montgomery and Bucks Counties.

Greenleaf introduced the resolution to establish an investigative panel on the same day U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) sought an additional $20 million in federal funding to expand the effort to track fugitives in the region.

The funding would go to federal marshals to help round up defendants who have failed to appear in court in Philadelphia and neighboring counties.

In Philadelphia alone, 47,000 defendants have skipped court and are wanted on bench warrants. The city courts have only a tiny squad to pursue them.

Specter, a onetime Philadelphia district attorney now locked in a close Democratic primary race with U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak of Delaware County, made the request in a report to Congress issued after a series of hearings he held in the aftermath of The Inquirer series.

"The Philadelphia Inquirer convincingly turned a harsh light on what many in the criminal justice system have known and what many have chosen to ignore," Specter said.

He cited "an unacceptably low conviction rate for violent crime and an unacceptably high rate of fugitives."

Greenleaf's proposed advisory panel would have to be approved by a state Senate majority, but he said passage seemed assured. It would have 18 months to finish its work.

The panel would augment the work of a blue-ribbon task force appointed by the state Supreme Court to examine the Philadelphia courts.

Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, another former Philadelphia district attorney, and fellow Justice Seamus McCaffery established that panel in response to the Inquirer series. The two justices have already imposed sweeping changes in court rules to address issues the newspaper raised.

In one key change, prosecutors will now have up to 21 days to prepare for a preliminary hearing, the proceeding at which a judge decides whether there is enough evidence to hold a defendant for trial. Current rules require such hearings to be held within 10 days. The justices said the change would mean that fewer hearings would be postponed because witnesses are unavailable or lawyers are unprepared.

As Castille and McCaffery carry out their reform agenda, members of the defense bar have complained that the changes were being pushed though without their input.

Greenleaf said his Senate investigation would create a forum for defense lawyers to join prosecutors, judges, and others in assessing the Philadelphia courts.

Charles A. Cunningham of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, which represents 70 percent of defendants in the city courts, said he was eager to take part in the effort.

"We welcome participation in any discussion about the criminal justice system, because we are one of the key players in it," he said.

Under the resolution, Greenleaf and possibly other senators would work with a large advisory committee of about 30 volunteers representing prosecutors, police, judges, crime victims and witnesses, prison officials and probation officers, and others, Greenleaf said.

The Joint State Government Commission, an investigative arm of the legislature, will provide professional staff to assist with their work.

In a message to his fellow senators seeking co-sponsors, Greenleaf said the commission "has a history of success in bringing together all the stakeholders on a particular issue and developing a consensus."

In the months ahead, commission staff and members of the advisory committee will take testimony from experts and produce a report that could call for changes in court rules and programs, propose new state laws, or recommend new funding to target problems.

Greenleaf's effort was joined by eight co-sponsors, and more are expected to sign on in the weeks ahead.

Supporters included three Philadelphia Democrats, Michael Stack, Christine M. Tartaglione, and LeAnna M. Washington, and three other Democrats, Daylin Leach of Montgomery and Delaware Counties, Michael O'Pake of Berks County; and Wayne D. Fontana of Allegheny County.

Aside from Greenleaf, the two other Republican co-sponsors were John Rafferty of Chester County and Richard Alloway of Franklin County.

In joining Greenleaf's call for a study of the Philadelphia courts, Stack said the city's criminal justice system had "serious problems."

"A task force is imperative to help us dissect the problems and create lasting solutions," he said.

Greenleaf and Gregg Warner, his legislative counsel, said previous panels had worked through thorny issues to arrive at common solutions.

Warner cited an investigative panel that looked into adoptions, taking testimony from birth parents and adopted children.

Otherstate Senate panels are looking into the issue of wrongly convicted inmates and how to make sure public defenders have adequate funding statewide.

Greenleaf's call for a Senate inquiry into the Philadelphia courts follows a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee last month at which city judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and others testified about the problems facing the city's criminal justice system.

The senator said he expected to hold more hearings, including into the issue of witness intimidation.

Greenleaf said the Philadelphia courts have to improve.

"We're looking for justice in our courts and an effective judicial system," he said. "We don't catch everybody, but when we do, justice has to be done."


Contact staff writer Nancy Phillips at 215-854-2254 or nphillips@phillynews.com.

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