Two more promising proposals have been floated to help remedy the chaotic conditions in the Philadelphia courts, where an Inquirer investigation revealed crime-fighting efforts plagued by low conviction rates, cases dismissed by the thousands, and a massive backlog of fugitives. With earlier moves by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to get a full day’s work out of judges, arm prosecutors with more time to prepare cases, and thwart defense attorneys who try to game the system with delays, there is growing momentum for reform.
In the latest proposal, state lawmakers are being urged to make a far-reaching change by reestablishing indicting grand juries in Pennsylvania. Such juries are used in most other states. Grand juries could hear testimony behind closed doors in a bid to reduce witness intimidation that causes so many cases to collapse. As long as the grand jury plan pitched Friday to a state Senate committee by former veteran prosecutor Walter M. Phillips Jr. is limited to major cases involving violent crimes — and does not become the rule for all prosecutions — it could be a useful tool. In fact, District Attorney Seth Williams endorsed the idea.
But the lukewarm reception to Phillips’ proposal from the Senate judiciary committee chairman, state Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), probably means that its proponents will have to do more homework to build support. For one thing, giving grand juries the authority to issue indictments in criminal cases would not spare witnesses from having to testify at a trial. There are other possible strategies to protect witnesses, too, such as the use of video testimony or witness relocation programs.
So a related initiative proposed by Williams holds greater promise. It would target missteps by prosecutors, police and court officials that lead to cases being dropped on procedural grounds. A companion effort to move many, if not all, preliminary hearings from police district roll-call rooms to the downtown courthouse could reassure witnesses of their safety. As he pledged during his campaign last year, Williams plans to realign his staff so that many prosecutors stick with criminal cases from start to finish. That could mean there’s less chance of dropping the ball, as happens now when prosecutors hand off cases moving through the courts.
Williams’ proposal to court officials that most cases be heard downtown has pros and cons. While witnesses would be safer, they could be inconvenienced by having to travel downtown. Scheduling police to testify might be easier in a central location, but downtown hearings also mean some officers would be off their beats for a longer time. Then there’s the issue of how to break the morning log jam that already exists each day as crowds try to enter the Criminal Justice Center.