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Shortage of judges could impact cases in York County

Written by Brandie Kessler and Ed Mahon/York Daily Record | Nov 11, 2015 4:16 AM
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FILE PHOTO: York County President Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh discusses the difference in size between several of the newly-built courtrooms during a tour of the recently finished fifth floor of the York County Judicial Center on Wednesday, June 24, 2015. When the seven-story judicial center was finished in 2004, the fifth floor was purposely left vacant to allow for additional courtrooms and chambers to be built at a later time. (Photo: Chris Dunn--Daily Record/Sunday News)

Programs that are aimed at bringing in restitution money for victims and lowering the recidivism rate of some violent offenders are being cut.

(York) -- York County President Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh said it's not justice when he can't give a civil case the proper amount of time or attention, or when judges have to get through 30 criminal cases in an afternoon.

"Our obligation is to do justice, and it bothers me tremendously that I have to sit here and tell you that we frequently now are not doing justice," Linebaugh said. "That's a terrible thing for a judge to have to say, knowing we are shortchanging the people."

York County is authorized by state law to have 15 full-time Common Pleas judges, but it has three vacant seats from retirements and another judge is expected to be away from court until late 2016 because he's been called for active military duty. The local bench has more vacancies than most other counties in Pennsylvania, both in raw numbers and as a percentage of its available seats.

That shortage leaves more cases for the remaining judges, and it impacts people throughout the county.

  • A reentry program aimed at making sure violent offenders don't commit other crimes is being eliminated in 2016 because there's not a judge available to participate. 
  • Time for hearings that recover costs owed by people who are found in contempt of criminal court and that recoup restitution owed to crime victims is being cut in half in 2016.
  • Judges are telling Linebaugh that they don't have enough time to spend on cases or on reading up on changes to the law.

"We don't have the manpower," Linebaugh said.

More vacancies

Judge Craig T. Trebilcock's last scheduled day at the York County Judicial Center was Friday, Nov. 6, according to court administrator Paul Crouse. Trebilcock, a colonel in the Judge Advocate General's Corps, is expected to be away from court for one year of active military service.

That gives York County 11 full-time active judges through the end of the year. Even with the election of two new judges last Tuesday, York County expects to have only 12 full-time active judges in January, because of retirements and Trebilcock's absence.

York County has more vacancies than 11 other counties with a similar population size, known as third class counties, based on Oct. 23 data provided by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

Five of those counties -- Chester, Dauphin, Erie, Northampton and Westmoreland -- had one vacancy. Six others, including Lancaster, had none.

Lancaster County Court Administrator Mark M. Dalton said he couldn't remember ever having more than one vacancy at a time. He said he's never had a situation during his 22 years working in Lancaster County similar to what's happening in York County.

"All I can say is I'm lucky not to have had that experience," Dalton said.

York County has more vacancies than some larger counties.

For instance, Allegheny County is authorized to have 43 full-time judges, and it had one vacancy, based on the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts data.

Statewide, there are 27 vacancies out of 451 Court of Common Pleas seats. Those vacancies do not count judges on temporary leave, said Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts spokesman Art Heinz.

Vacancies could be temporarily filled if Gov. Tom Wolf nominates replacements and the Senate confirms them. Wolf has submitted some placeholder names in case he wants to fill those Common Pleas judge spots in the future, but he hasn't tried to fill them now.

Only two people have been appointed to Court of Common Pleas seats this year. Before Tom Corbett left office, he nominated two people to fill seats in Bucks County. The Senate confirmed them in March.

Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said the governor is working with the Senate to address judicial vacancies at different levels across the state.

"We do not have any decisions at this time," Sheridan said in an email.

Linebaugh said he'd like to see Wolf and the Senate make appointments, possibly early next year

State Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, has said he would only support temporary appointments to the bench if they agreed to not run for election to that seat. That's still his view, but he said he's open to looking at different options.

"There was a thought process of, 'We could get through this.' But now they're down more judges," Wagner said.

He said he wanted to get input from York County Bar Association members about the issue. No such meeting was scheduled as of Thursday, he said.

Wait times for cases

York County had empty judge seats in 2014. But it appears criminal and civil action cases for the year did not not take longer to get through the court system than the statewide average, based on Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts data.

As of the end of 2014, 8 percent of pending York County civil action cases were older than two years. Statewide, more pending cases -- 38 percent -- were older than two years.

For pending criminal cases at the end of 2014, 9 percent were more than 360 days old in York County, compared to 13 percent of such cases statewide.

Many criminal cases and some family law cases have built-in deadlines, Linebaugh said. And despite the vacancies, York County judges have been able to move through their dockets.

But Linebaugh said all cases are not getting the attention they deserve from judges.

"We can't. We have time limits," he said.

One judge recently told Linebaugh he feels like a cookie cutter, and another said he feels like he's working on an assembly line, "'just turning out widgets,'" Linebaugh said.

"We're doing a disservice to the community," Linebaugh added. "And then people look at it and say, 'But you're getting the cases done.' Well, we don't have any choice."

He said there are four judges in York County that handle criminal cases instead of five. He said those judges have to handle 20 percent more cases.

Restitution money for victims

From Jan. 1, 2015 through Oct. 28, 2015, cost contempt hearings in York County brought in more than $119,000, and then bail hearings for those cases brought in another $86,000, said Don O'Shell, York County clerk of courts.

That money includes restitution owed to crime victims, he said.

Cost contempt hearings are held when someone who was ordered to pay costs, fines and restitution related to a criminal case fails to do so and is found in contempt of court, O'Shell said.

Judge John S. Kennedy, who oversees cost contempt hearings, has scheduled two half-days each month for those hearings. In 2016, he will cut that time in half. O'Shell said that will impact how much money the hearings bring in, as well as the reputation of the court.

"If there's not a day of reckoning for a defendant, then why should they pay any attention to our other efforts?" he said.

Kennedy said the cost contempt hearings have also proven useful in getting jobs for some people who were claiming they were disabled.

"What Mr. O'Shell and the court has done is make a situation most people view as negative an opportunity," Kennedy said.

Kennedy said he's certain that the cost contempt hearings are "not going to be as effective" when the schedule gets cut. He said he saw 55 people for cost contempt hearings one morning in October.

Preventing other crimes

Kennedy will take over some of Trebilcock's workload, so Kennedy will stop his involvement with the York reentry program.

The program, which is for medium and high risk parolees with a history of drug or alcohol abuse, started with Kennedy in 2004 as a pilot program for the state, said John Tuttle, state parole board member. The program pairs a judge with a parole board member and they, along with several other team members, oversee parolees and connect them with resources, like treatment providers. The goal is that they do not reoffend.

Tuttle said the program has worked. He said the reentry program lasts between 18 months and two years. He said about 100 to 200 people have gone through the reentry program in York County since 2004.

If fewer people commit crimes, the public is safer, he said.

The program is now used in five other counties, Tuttle said.

But after eight people graduate from the program later this month, the program will end in York County.

Tuttle said the program doesn't require a judge in order to function, but having a judge sit in on the meetings is part of what makes it effective. The state has decided that it won't continue the program in York County without a judge dedicated to it.

Kennedy's involvement in the program has been invaluable, Tuttle said, but even if judge appointments are made in York County, it's not likely the reentry program will come back.

"When you kind of dismantle something, it's hard to get it fired back up," he said.

Life things happen

Judge John S. Kennedy said when his mother-in-law passed away recently, he didn't know what he was going to do if her funeral was scheduled for the same day he had court.

"Was I going to have to cancel a court hearing" that had already been scheduled and advertised, he wondered.

In the past, when he was in situations where "life things happen," he said, another judge could cover. But that's not the case anymore with the vacancies in York County.

Right now, it's difficult to get all the routine things covered, he said.

"I think the stress, the tension, is up there," Kennedy said. He had to turn down a request from family court to cover some hearings because his schedule is too full. "That's what we're seeing, every division, every judge is looking for ways to get things done."

 


This article comes to us through a partnership between York Daily Record and WITF.

 

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