Philadelphia’s legal community is urging criminal defendants to take advantage of a program being offered by the city’s court system to get their cases back on track.
The First Judicial District’s Back on Track Initiative gives those accused of crimes the opportunity to self-report to the Criminal Justice Center at 13th and Filbert beginning Monday to find a new court date.
District Attorney Larry Krasner said there are potentially more than a thousand cases that are not ready for trial because a new date to resume the criminal process has not been established. The goal is to have people without a court date to speak with attorneys to establish one.
“What they will find there are representatives of the Public Defender’s office, the Defender Association, who will be stationed in the lobby, who will speak to them as they come in about when their next court date is and to try to get them a subpoena so they can get back on track.”
Krasner said this is not a scheme to bring people to the courthouse to lock them up, but if defendants don’t voluntarily show up, they will be facing arrest through a bench warrant.
Back On Track gives people opportunity to get a new court date “without risking the possibility of being stuck in a jail during the pandemic, or pulled out of your place of employment, or pulled out of your home when none of that is necessary and none of that is good for you or for society,” he added.
Acting Chief Defender Alan Tauber said the program is for a very specific group of individuals.
“It is intended only to address cases where people are awaiting trial. It is not intended to address issues for people who are on probation or have questions about their probation status,” said Tauber, who added it’s also not for juveniles who are awaiting a court date.
Tauber added that this is a “simple and safe process” to rectify a backlog in the court system that has been going on for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The program is not only for those who have pro bono representation. Kathryn Cacciamani, a private criminal defense attorney, joined her colleagues in saying that the program will help move the criminal justice system that had ground to a halt during the pandemic back into motion.
Krasner added that criminal defendants who voluntarily come back for a court date could see come consideration from prosecutors if they are convicted come sentencing time.
“It’s a factor to consider at sentencing, if someone is sentenced after being found guilty or pleading guilty,” said Krasner. He added “it’s a factor when deciding on which charges to proceed upon, it’s also a factor to consider in terms of diversion.” Diversion is a sentence where someone can avoid jail time, and possibly a criminal record.
As for the number of people who are awaiting trial without a court date, Krasner was unsure.
“I believe there are probably in excess of a thousand cases where defendants do not know what their next court date is,” said Krasner. “Either because the courts were closed on the date when they were scheduled to come to court, and therefore they could not receive a new subpoena, or because they have lost track of what’s going on. It may be more; it may be more than a couple thousand.”
Even once new court dates are established, there isn’t going to be a major rush to judgement. A spokesperson for the First Judicial District said they are currently doing only four jury trials a week as part of the effort to ramp up to normalcy in the courts.