County set to open central court
Luzerne County officials will open the doors Monday and cases will begin there Oct. 16.
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.”
Luzerne County officials will open the new Central Court at 77 Water St. in Wilkes-Barre on Monday.