Luzerne County’s criminal case backlog has decreased by more than 700 due to the 9-month-old central court, said county President Judge Richard Hughes.
Central court funnels magisterial-level criminal cases in the county’s northern half through a building next to the county prison on Water Street in Wilkes-Barre, eliminating proceedings at scattered district judge locations. The regional hub streamlines scheduling and cuts delays by immediately linking defendants to various representatives involved in criminal justice system matters, Hughes said.
As of Thursday, the number of criminal cases awaiting adjudication was down to approximately 1,800, Hughes said.
One county judge observed that he is accepting guilty pleas or proceeding with trial preparation for criminal cases that had been processed at central court only two months ago, compared to a gap of up to six months in the past, Hughes said.
“This is pretty much unheard of,” Hughes said of the two-month span.
Hughes and other colleagues pushed for the court’s creation to honor the right to a speedy trial, address county prison overcrowding and more quickly channel eligible offenders with mental health and substance-abuse disorders to specialty diversionary courts targeting those issues.
About 60 percent of county inmates — double the national average — were awaiting adjudication, as opposed to serving sentences, court officials said last fall.
While an updated county percentage is still under analysis, Hughes said central court has been a major contributor to a steady prison population decline.
At or above its 505-inmate capacity for years, the Water Street prison population started shrinking last year due to efforts of a special task force.
In June 2017, the prison’s average daily population was 498. The average dropped to 459 this June, according to the latest report.
The reduction helps reduce prison expenses and congestion that can compromise inmate and staff safety, Hughes said.
A second courtroom, additional public seating, enhanced security and other central court improvements will be added when a modular addition opens in early September, court officials said.
Wilkes-Barre-based Panzitta Enterprises Inc. submitted the low bid of $318,350 for a construction contract earlier this year, the contract states.
Surveying construction progress on the building this week, Hughes said the added space will allow a separate waiting area for crime victims and up to three magisterial judges at a time instead of one.
“The concept is we’ll have more courtrooms going and will put people through in an orderly manner,” he said.
One of the magisterial judges will process waivers from defendants who don’t want preliminary hearings or arraignments to formally read their charges. Unnecessary scheduling of such proceedings clogs up court calendars, Hughes said.
Meanwhile, the number of participants in drug treatment court has increased from 42 to 62, primarily due to the central court presence of a representative who assesses eligibility, officials said.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.