Faced with the stew of problems that prevents the Philadelphia criminal justice system from dispensing justice with any regularity, some senior officials might be tempted to throw up their hands in frustration.
Fortunately, President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe of Common Pleas Court has decided that she has to start somewhere. But her medicine is hardly a cure. More action will be needed.
Dembe has alerted the 300 lawyers who handle court-appointed defense work for low-income clients that her office will begin tracking how quickly they dispose of cases. The Inquirer recently documented instances of defense counsel who manipulate the system to delay trials in the hope that prosecutors’ cases will fall apart.
These delays contribute to the city courts’ subpar rate of clearing felony cases. With a clearance rate of 70 percent in a year, Philadelphia ranks next to last among large urban counties. Of greater concern, The Inquirer analysis of 31,000 criminal court cases over a three-year period found that defendants beat all charges in most violent-crime cases, making for a more dangerous city.
Dembe’s directive went out to a small slice of the defense bar — those who represent clients at city expense. It has no impact on the many attorneys who handle privately paid defense work.
Even among court-appointed counsel, there’s good reason to believe it’s in their interest to move cases quickly since they are paid below-market rates only when a case is completed.
Dembe’s initiative, though, send a message to the defense bar as a whole. By tugging on this strand of the problems in the city’s justice system, she also shines a light on other causes for derailed prosecutions.
Of particular concern to her should be her own court’s rules that limit prosecutors to three attempts to put a witness on the stand. After “three strikes,” a case can be dismissed. In a city where witness intimidation is common, that rule can tilt the scales of justice in favor of perps who dare anyone to testify against them.
That’s an issue that Dembe didn’t address. But her notice to defense lawyers signals to the legal community and everyday Philadelphians that court officials are troubled by what they see.