Citing courtroom delays that plague Philadelphia's criminal-justice system, a top city judge has pressed court-appointed defense lawyers to move their cases along swiftly.
President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe of Common Pleas Court said her office would monitor how long lawyers take to handle cases and consider those "disposition rates" in making future assignments.
Dembe announced the change in a Dec. 17 letter to about 300 lawyers who represent indigent clients at the court's expense. The letter came in response to an Inquirer series that depicted a city court system in crisis - beset by low conviction rates, a massive fugitive problem, long court delays, and dismissal of thousands of cases each year without any decision on the merits.
"My goal is to have lawyers think twice - especially if they're operating on our dime - before they ask for a continuance that isn't really justified," Dembe said in an interview last week.
Lawyers who handle court appointments bristled at her decision to take aim at them.
Samuel C. Stretton, a veteran defense lawyer whose practice includes a significant amount of court-appointed work, said Dembe's effort was "misguided" and would do nothing but deprive defendants of quality counsel.
Dembe's call for greater accountability followed a comprehensive analysis in which The Inquirer traced the outcomes of 31,000 criminal court cases filed in 2006, 2007, and 2008. It showed that defendants walk free on all charges in nearly two-thirds of violent-crime cases, giving Philadelphia the nation's lowest felony-conviction rate among large urban counties.
The Inquirer also reported that Philadelphia ranks second-to-last among large urban counties in its ability to quickly dispose of cases. According to federal comparative studies, only 70 percent of Philadelphia's felony cases were resolved within a year. By contrast, 97 percent of cases in the Detroit court system were resolved within a year.
Dembe, in her letter to the lawyers, pointed out that the American Bar Association standard for disposition of criminal cases was four months for misdemeanors and six months for felonies. She said the court would measure each lawyer's performance against those standards in weighing whether to appoint them in future cases.
As part of its investigation, The Inquirer reported that defense lawyers in Philadelphia sometimes seek spurious delays to wear down witnesses and gamble that the case will later fall apart as a result.
While such tactics are not limited to court-appointed lawyers, Dembe said she was focusing on them because she had little control over lawyers who are privately retained.
"That's tougher," she said. "You have different amounts of leverage with different kinds of people."
Court-appointed lawyers handle more than 15 percent of the city's criminal cases each year, representing defendants who cannot afford to hire a lawyer.
Stretton and other court-appointed lawyers criticized Dembe's focus on disposition rates. "This solves nothing," he said. "It's self-destructive. They need to keep good counsel, and good counsel is the busiest."
Stretton's clients have included John Gassew, whose long history of arrests was detailed in the Inquirer series. At age 23, Gassew has been arrested more than 40 times, mostly on charges of armed robbery, but never convicted of that crime. Many of his cases lingered in the court system for more than a year before they were dropped or dismissed.
Stretton said that in the case in which he represented Gassew, prosecutors twice sought delays before they dropped the case five months after the arrest. He also said court officials had scheduled long waits between hearings.
"That's not my fault," he said. "You can see from this case what the challenges are."
Last year, Stretton and three other lawyers sued the city and the courts over the meager wages court-appointed lawyers are paid - about $650 per felony, a rate he said was set in 1988. Privately retained lawyers might charge $5,000 or more for similar work, he said.
David Rudenstein, a veteran defense lawyer who handles a lot of court-appointed cases, said he and his colleagues had no reason to seek unnecessary delays.
"You know when I get paid? At the end," he said. "If there's anyone who doesn't have an incentive to delay, it's me. I have to pay a mortgage. My wife would like to eat. My dogs are barking for another bone."
Rudenstein said Dembe's goal was worthy, but he worried that it could come at a cost if lawyers began to put a premium on speed.
"I think what it could lead to is lawyers saying they're ready when they're not because they don't want to get into trouble."