County set to open cen­tral court

Luzerne County of­fi­cials will open the doors Mon­day and cases will be­gin there Oct. 16.

The Citizens' Voice - - Front Page - BY JAMES HALPIN Staff Writer

WILKES-BARRE — Cen­tral court is poised to open for busi­ness.

Af­ter years of plan­ning, county of­fi­cials plan to open the doors of the new cen­tral court at 77 Wa­ter St. — next door to the Luzerne County Cor­rec­tional Fa­cil­ity — on Mon­day, with mag­is­trates be­gin­ning to hear­ing cases there Oct. 16, Luzerne County Pres­i­dent Judge Richard M. Hughes III said Fri­day.

The court will han­dle most of the county’s crim­i­nal pre­lim­i­nary hear­ings, while sum­mary vi­o­la­tions, such as traf­fic ci­ta­tions, as well as small-claims civil ac­tions will con­tinue to be pro­cessed at the mag­is­trates’ reg­u­lar of­fices.

Pro­po­nents of the court say it will in­crease ef­fi­ciency by sav­ing time and money for Luzerne County and its po­lice agen­cies.

“As a global sys­tem, this is a pos­i­tive way to go,” Hughes said. “It’s go­ing to be, I think, a tremen­dous sav­ings in terms of time.”

The county pre­vi­ously had a cen­tral court in the Thomas C. Thomas Co. build­ing, but it closed in 2009 af­ter then-District At­tor­ney Jackie Musto Car­roll ar­gued keep­ing an as­sis­tant district at­tor­ney at the lo­ca­tion be­came too bur­den­some for her over­worked staff. Out­ly­ing po­lice chiefs also com­plained their of­fi­cers were spend­ing hours each day driv­ing to Wilkes-Barre.

This time around, how­ever, pros­e­cu­tors have ex­pressed sup­port for the sys­tem, and Hughes said or­ga­niz­ers have taken steps to make things run more smoothly for po­lice.

For one, the court’s prox­im­ity to the jail — about 100 feet — will al­low of­fi­cers to walk hand­cuffed and shack­led pris­on­ers be­tween the lo­ca­tions. That will elim­i­nate a bot­tle­neck that some­times oc­curs un­der the cur­rent sys­tem, in which of­fi­cers drive into the fa­cil­ity, one ve­hi­cle at a time, to sign pris­on­ers out, he said.

It will also free up space for the vans Luzerne County sher­iff’s deputies use to trans­port pris­on­ers to the county court­house, he said.

While the old cen­tral­ized court ran on a “cat­tle call” sys­tem with nu­mer­ous cases sched­uled at the same time, this time around they will be sched­uled for spe­cific dates and times to re­duce wait­ing, he said.

“The way we’re sched­ul­ing this, we be­lieve that the po­lice of­fi­cers are go­ing to spend sig­nif­i­cantly less time at cen­tral court,” Hughes said.

The court will con­sist of three full-time staff mem­bers and a su­per­vi­sor who have been trans­ferred from other lo­ca­tions, he said.

Thir­teen of the county’s 16 mag­is­te­rial district judges will ro­tate through on a daily ba­sis to pre­side over the hear­ings — the three mag­is­trates from the Ha­zle­ton area will con­tinue hear­ing cases in their own court­rooms and will not be part of the ro­ta­tion, he said.

How­ever, in Ha­zle­ton-area cases in which the de­fen­dants are in­car­cer­ated, pre­lim­i­nary hear­ings will still be held in cen­tral court, he said.

“If they’re al­ready here, we’re not go­ing to make po­lice drive up here, pick them up, drive them back to Ha­zle­ton for a hear­ing and then bring them back up here,” Hughes said. “We’ll do them right here.”

In ad­di­tion to sav­ing time and re­sources, the new court will also help cases move through the sys­tem more ef­fi­ciently, al­low­ing for ear­lier de­tec­tion of cases that are suit­able for di­ver­sion­ary pro­grams, he said.

“All of this should have the net ef­fect of re­duc­ing prison over­crowd­ing, which is a huge item,” Hughes said. “It kind of has a domino ef­fi­ciency ef­fect.”

War­reN ruda / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Luzerne County of­fi­cials will open the new Cen­tral Court at 77 Wa­ter St. in Wilkes-Barre on Mon­day.

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