POTTSVILLE, SCHUYLKILL COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU-TV) — Far too often, it can be a long road to justice, sometimes even too long for those dealing with the justice system in our region.
But one county adopted a system that is reducing that wait time. Eyewitness News reporter Rachael Espaillat explains how Schuylkill County is delivering swifter justice.
Whether you are the victim, a defendant, or a witness, the last thing you want is a long-drawn-out court case. But for years, Schuylkill County courts were swamped with cases they couldn’t keep up with.
“It got to the point where we were having 700 cases on a pretrial conference. There is absolutely no way that a district attorney office can prepare 700 cases for trial in a weeks’ time,” said President Judge William Baldwin, Schuylkill County Court.
Counties the size of Schuylkill County have about 1,100 cases at any given time. But in 2017, Schuylkill County had 2,100 cases piled up, a more than 1,000 case backlog.
“Victims are hanging around and worrying about what is going to be happening with their case. Always thinking about it. Not being able to put it behind them,” noted Michael O’Pake, Schuylkill County D.A.
On top of that, the prison is overcrowded. Judge Baldwin says the drug epidemic has been a major contributor.
“We’re shipping about 90 people a day to other prisons so if we have a defendant who is going to be acquitted, then he’s out of prison. If he is going to get a state sentence he’s going to go to state prison. He’s not over there jamming up our prison while we are waiting to go to trial on old cases,” said Judge Baldwin.
After brainstorming and talking with other counties, court officials implemented a new system in November 2018. They pulled themselves out of this black hole and push a majority of their cases out within six to nine months from the time they are filed.
“The only way you can make it go faster is to put some deadlines on how long the plea offers are going to be staying out there and that is where the district attorney comes into play,” said Judge Baldwin.
Monthly status conferences are held the week before jury selection. During those conferences, the attorneys figure out what is holding that case back. O’Pake says he creates a personalized fair plea deal based on the defendants’ situation.
“Once that offer is made and conveyed, and we appear in front of a judge, at the status conference. One of two things can happen, with that defendant. One is they can accept the offer that we have negotiated or they can say that they can go to trial,” explained O’Pake.
O’Pake says that the offer only goes on the table one time. If they pass it up but then change their mind later on, the next best offer is much harsher than the original deal.
“So that makes people want to make a decision. Sometimes people just have a habit of trying to put things off. We’re trying to stop that from happening,” noted O’Pake.
And that pressure has worked in their favor. Helping free up some space in the prison- and bringing swifter justice in the county.
The county now deals with about 800 cases on their plate at any given time.