Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe, supervising judge of the criminal branch, had a load of news for the criminal justice section of the Philadelphia Bar Association during its meeting Tuesday.
In addition to Dembe’s critique of the Clerk of Quarter Sessions’ Office and reporting that the First Judicial District is thinking about taking over some of the Quarter Sessions’ Office’s functions, the judge said that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office and the Defender Association of Philadelphia have agreed to a pilot jury selection program in which jury selection will be conducted without the supervision of judges.
Dembe, who came on about a year ago as the criminal branch supervising judge, said the change to a model paralleling jury selection in civil cases will allow lawyers to ask more questions of potential jurors.
Initial cases for the new model will be selected on a case-by-case basis, Dembe said.
The FJD is also working on instituting a one judge-one defendant model for violation of paroles/probations, to save time undertaken to get an agreement between the court, defense counsel and the commonwealth to restore a defendant to probation or parole with a variety of services just to have another judge sentence the defendant to jail for the violation, Dembe said.
Currently, there are 50,000 defendants with VOPs before one judge, 5,000 defendants with VOPs before two judges, 500 defendants with VOPs before four judges, 50 defendants with VOPs before four judges and five defendants with VOPs before five judges, Dembe said.
Common Pleas Court is also working on improving the turnaround time in court transcripts prepared by court reporters, Dembe said. Transcripts will now be sent out on compact discs because the provision of paper transcripts is becoming a burden more and more as the court’s budget declines, Dembe said.
In response to an audience comment that sending transcripts in CD form would require lawyers representing indigent clients to bear the costs of printing transcripts to use in court, Dembe said she would be more sympathetic to the ongoing court-appointed counsel fees issue if attorneys had responded to her past requests for information on how much it costs to run a law office. She said the ball is in attorneys’ court to give her that information so she can educate her fellow judges about the overhead costs of law offices.
Dembe also said she has put together a working group of judges who meet together every two weeks to focus on one topic at a time. The results of the meeting are sent to all the criminal judges via e-mail, Dembe said.
This model is like the “Sheppard committee,” Dembe said, which Common Pleas Senior Judge Albert W. Sheppard Jr. ran when the Common Pleas Court was down several judges following the late 1980s Roofer’s Union bribers scandal in which two dozen judges were implicated in accepting envelopes of cash as Christmas gifts from union officials and Common Pleas’ massive civil backlog in the early 1990s.
– Amaris Elliott-Engel, staff reporter