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Philly ‘Gun Court’ to be silenced

A seven-year experiment with a specialized court for illegal gun possession in Philadelphia is going to end, a victim of shrinking resources.

A seven-year experiment with a specialized court for illegal gun possession in Philadelphia is going to end, a victim of shrinking resources.

Whether "Gun Court" successfully prevented more serious crimes is unknown.

Established in 2005 in reaction to the high number of firearms violations and the 2004 death of 10-year-old Faheem Thomas-Childs in a cross fire outside his school in North Philadelphia, no comprehensive study has been done to measure the court's long-term effectiveness.

An estimated 800 defendants were handled annually.

The court was assigned 20 probation officers who provided intensive supervision of offenders, typically facing a charge of illegal possession of a gun, often in connection with a secondary, nonviolent offense.

"The decision was made that those funds were needed elsewhere, so I could no longer afford to have those 20 probation officers solely supervising that small population" in Gun Court, said Common Pleas Court Judge D. Webster Keogh, administrative judge of the trial division.

The 20 Gun Court probation officers will be reassigned to regular duties in the severely depleted probation ranks, helping to fill 56 vacancies, Keogh said. The court's closing, at the end of this year, was first reported by the Legal Intelligencer.

Keogh said the decision was forced by the elimination of a $1.3 million state grant used to pay the cost of the probation officers. While some money was returned in general court funds, the net reduction was about $930,000, according to the state.

The enhanced probationary conditions included weekly contact with a probation officer, home visits, increased random drug tests, community service, and counseling.

"It can't be a negative thing to have extra restrictions and supervision, and that's going to be lost," said First Assistant District Attorney Ed McCann, "but we are all doing the same or greater work with less resources."

There are no available data on whether the court was successful in preventing future gun crimes by the defendants, officials said.

The one study of Gun Court, an analysis by court-system researcher Ellen Kurtz, looked at its first year of operation and found that convictions modestly increased, driven by more guilty pleas.

An Inquirer analysis of all gun-possession cases brought in 2006 and 2007 found that 56 percent ended in conviction. More recent data are not available.

James Koval, a spokesman for the state court system, said the Supreme Court and Gov. Corbett agreed this year to take about $3.1 million in special grants to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and add it to the statewide judicial budget.

That increased the amount of money to other counties, but meant a cut in Philadelphia.

Also eliminated in the budget that took effect in July was a $218,000 grant for a domestic-violence program.

Community Court, which handled minor nonviolent and quality-of-life cases in Center City, was closed this week. Such cases are now being handled by a special program in Municipal Court for misdemeanors. It is in place citywide.