Castille and Williams - joined at a news conference in front of the Criminal Justice Center by Justice Seamus McCaffery and other senior law enforcement and judicial officials - called the new system a major step in a reform agenda crafted in response to an Inquirer series called "Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied," which depicted the Philadelphia criminal justice in crisis.
McCaffery, a former homicide detective who served a decade ago as administrative judge for Philadelphia Municipal Court, said the change was overdue.
"Thankfully, almost a year ago, The Philadelphia Inquirer did a very in-depth study, and came out with the proper data," McCaffery said. "We looked at it. We decided it was time for the Supreme Court to get involved."
The series reported late last year that defendants charged with violent crimes in Philadelphia were escaping conviction in almost two-thirds of cases.
"We looked at some of the numbers that were reported by The Inquirer," Castille said, "and it's pretty astounding, the numbers and the consequences of what happened to the cases as they go through the system."
Aggregating case-by-case data supplied by the courts, The Inquirer tracked 31,000 violent-crime cases brought since 2006, and for the first time provided the public with conviction rates for the Philadelphia system.
The paper identified precisely where cases failed. It found that, of cases that ended without a conviction, 82 percent died in the lower-tier Municipal Court. At this level, judges preside over preliminary hearings to determine whether enough evidence exists for a trial in the upper Common Pleas Court.
While Williams and McCaffery immediately embraced the paper's findings, others, including Castille and top Philadelphia judges, were initially more skeptical.
Williams' predecessor, Lynne M. Abraham, denounced the paper's work, though she conceded she kept no figures of her own. And Ellen Greenlee, who heads the Defender Association of Philadelphia, called the paper's statistics "nonsense."
At Thursday's news conference, Castille said he was satisfied that the paper's statistics were on target.
"Those numbers have been verified by our outside consultant, Chadwick Associates," he said. "To me, that was a direct impact upon the public safety of the city of Philadelphia, of which I am still a citizen. So our court decided we had to do something."
All preliminary hearings will take place in the Criminal Justice Center, on Filbert Street across from City Hall.
Courts Administrator David C. Lawrence, top judges, and court staff agreed to dedicate six of the 14 floors as neighborhood zones, following the lines of the six police detective divisions.
Williams said he had reorganized his office in tandem, assigning more than 80 prosecutors - more than a quarter of his staff - to neigborhood-based teams.
He said prosecutors would be able to work much more closely with community leaders and civic groups.
The district attorney also said the Criminal Justice Center, with its weapons detectors and heavy security, would be a safer environment for victims and witnesses.
Castille said the zone courts would build on changes imposed in April by the Supreme Court.
In that edict, among other changes, the court gave prosecutors more time to bring cases and decreed that preliminary hearings could be held in absentia for defendants who went on the lam.
Castille said the goal was to make sure that cases were decided on the evidence.
"We're not looking for more guilties, or more innocents. We're looking for justice to happen in this court system," he said.
"There were some glaring things that were pointed out where justice was not occurring. So this is a great step."
"This is a marathon," McCaffery added. "We're not going to take care of all the problems in one fell swoop. This is going to take us months, maybe years, but we are committed."
Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Ross also endorsed the new system.
"We deal with crime victims, as the D.A. does and the judges do, each and every day," Ross said. "I think what is critical is that we ensure that our victims are not victimized twice, and that our criminal justice system does not let them down."
Contact staff writer Craig R. McCoy at 215-854-4821 or email@example.com.