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'Zone courts' proposed in Phila.

The D.A. wants to assign 100 prosecutors to 6 neighborhoods.

The Criminal Justice Center in center city Philadelphia. (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer)
The Criminal Justice Center in center city Philadelphia. (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer)Read more

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams is pushing forward with an ambitious plan to reorganize both his staff and the courts to refocus prosecutions by city neighborhoods.

Williams wants to reassign almost 100 of his prosecutors - roughly a third of them - into six teams that each would cover a large swath of the city. These teams would handle cases at each step in the criminal-justice process.

The office would keep elite units, including homicide, domestic violence, and sexual assault, and their veteran prosecutors in place. But most cases would be divided up for prosecution among the six neighborhood teams.

Williams is also seeking the state Supreme Court's backing to reorganize the Philadelphia courts in tandem, also along neighborhood lines.

Justice Seamus McCaffery, a leader in a high court push to reform city courts, has already endorsed the plan. Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said that the idea looked promising, but that he wanted to study it further.

Under Williams' plan, the courts would set aside different floors of the Criminal Justice Center, the massive downtown courthouse, to hear cases from the six neighborhood zones.

Most significant, the courts would stop scheduling hundreds of preliminary hearings weekly in the roll-call rooms at six neighborhood police districts. The cases would instead take place at the 14-story courthouse.

"It's a fundamental, system-wide change," Williams said in an interview.

Charles A. Cunningham, a top official of the Defender Association, which represents a majority of the defendants in the criminal courts, said the office did not oppose the plan.

In proposing the changes, Williams is embracing a "vertical" model used by prosecutors in New York, Washington, and some other jurisdictions.

For decades in Philadelphia, as in most big cities, the District Attorney's Office has been organized along "horizontal" lines, with some prosecutors handling cases at one stage before turning them over to new ones as the prosecutions advance.

Williams said the new approach would require a "cultural change" for prosecutors, judges, and others, but would pay off with less witness intimidation, a closer prosecutorial connection with neighborhood groups - and, ultimately, more convictions.

Crucially, it would make it easier for police to testify at court hearings. Now, they are often scheduled in multiple courtrooms around the city at the same time.

Castille, a former Philadelphia district attorney, and McCaffery, a former top judge in Philadelphia, have been leading a campaign to overhaul the city's criminal-justice system.

The two justices launched the reform campaign in response to an Inquirer series, published in December, that portrayed a system in crisis, troubled by rampant witness fear and growing numbers of fugitives from court.

The series reported that Philadelphia had one of the nation's lowest conviction rates - with thousands of cases each year collapsing early on without any exploration of their merits.

"This is going to be a major, major step," McCaffery said, referring to Williams' "zone courts" plan. "The beauty is that this will enable us to more efficiently run the court system, to put cases on and make sure there is a meritorious adjudication."

He added: "Everybody is going to know what is going on in a particular community. The new D.A.s are going to learn all about a particular neighborhood."

Castille said he welcomed steps that put criminal-justice officials in closer contact with neighborhoods.

"Maybe it would help them identify someone they could save," Castille said, referring to defendants who might be rehabilitated before their wrongdoing escalates.

With McCaffery presiding, Williams and his top aides laid out their proposal to a phalanx of top court officials during a meeting Tuesday in City Hall.

Among those present were the three top judges in Common Pleas Court - D. Webster Keogh, Pamela Pryor Dembe, and Sheila Woods-Skipper - and two top judges in the lower Municipal Court, Marsha H. Neifield and Lydia Y. Kirkland.

Cunningham and his boss, chief defender Ellen T. Greenlee, also attended. So did courts administrator David C. Lawrence and his senior staff.

In an interview Friday, Lawrence said he was open to reorganizing how judges were assigned and to bringing more cases into the main courthouse.

But he and Keogh noted that the Criminal Justice Center was already notorious for the long lines and backups on its first floor every morning.

No matter what changes are implemented, Keogh noted drily, "there won't be more elevators."

Williams hopes to implement all of the changes in the fall.

Deputy District Attorney Ed McCann, head of the Trial Division, would oversee the six neighborhood teams. They would pursue cases within the boundaries of the Police Department's six detective divisions: Central, East, Northeast, South, Southwest, and Northwest.

After analyzing arrest data from last year, Williams and his top aides have developed scenarios under which each team would be staffed in proportion to crime in each area.

For example, under the tentative plan, 21 assistant district attorneys would make up the team in the Southwest Division, pursuing arrests made in one of Philadelphia's most crime-prone areas. As few as eight prosecutors, along with a supervisor, would be assigned to the South Philadelphia division.

Under the current system, assistant district attorneys "work the room," in the jargon of the office. Some handle initial preliminary hearings in Municipal Court, others are assigned to the rooms where judges hear plea-bargains, and still others are assigned to prosecute jury trials. The change would end that.

To create the teams, Williams plans to disband the office's long-standing Municipal Court, Felony Waiver, and Major Trials units.

Currently, victims and witnesses often find the Criminal Justice Center a bewildering and intimidating place, as their cases are handed off to new prosecutors at each stage. Williams and McCaffery said the new approach would end much of that.

They said it also would make the Criminal Justice Center a less bewildering and intimidating place for victims and witnesses, whose cases are now handed off to new prosecutors at each stage.

Moreover, they said, the shake-up would position prosecutors to become intimately familiar with their target communities, gathering intelligence about crime "hot spots" and career criminals.

Williams and McCaffery also said bringing hearings from the neighborhoods and into the Criminal Justice Center would pay big dividends in several ways.

For McCaffery, a former administrative judge of Philadelphia Municipal Court, this is a second attempt to consolidate court hearings downtown. In 2001, when he presided over Municipal Court, he ordered that all hearings be held in the Center City courthouse.

His order was countermanded within a few months by the Supreme Court after city judges complained that the move had clogged up the main courthouse's six public elevators.

Now, McCaffery is on the Supreme Court.

He and Williams said shifting the hearings back to Center City would greatly curb witness intimidation.

At hearings now held at police stations, victims, witnesses, and their families and friends enter the same doorway as defendants and their supporters. All parties then sit side by side to await the hearings. The atmosphere can be tense, and at times ominous.

No one is checked for weapons.

"Internal security is something that police are not trained for," said First Assistant District Attorney Joseph McGettigan. "You have a mélange of people massing in these police districts - cell-phone camera at the ready to take pictures of witnesses."

Under one possible aspect of the new plan, victims and defendants would enter through separate pathways at the main courthouse - and be screened for weapons.

Williams and McCaffery said consolidating hearings in the Criminal Justice Center would all but eliminate another choke point in the system: the failure of cases because police witnesses are subpoenaed to be at the main courthouse and at neighborhood hearings at the same time.

As The Inquirer reported in its series, cases routinely collapse because police have been double-booked in this fashion. The court computer system doesn't flag such conflicts when subpoenas are written, the paper reported.

Under the proposal, Williams said, police witnesses would merely need to go from courtroom to courtroom in the same building, on the same floor.

"If they weren't in your room when you needed them and you knew they were subpoenaed, you could just step outside into the hall and yell," Williams said.

Cunningham, the top aide to chief public defender Greenlee, said many witnesses who aren't police officers might find it easier to attend hearings in their neighborhood.

"Are we going to be trading less police continuances for more civilian continuances?" he asked.

Williams said dramatic change was needed in a court system marked by case breakdowns and a felony conviction rate among the lowest in the nation.

"It's kind of like taking over an 0-and-16 NFL team in some ways," he said. "You have to make changes."