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Criminal Justice Leaders Hail Progress in Reducing Case Backlog, Cite Need for More City Funding

PHILADELPHIA (March 14, 2022) – Criminal justice system leaders on Monday praised the increase in jury trial capacity in Philadelphia’s court system, nearly two years after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared a statewide judicial emergency. 

Since the March 16, 2020, judicial emergency declaration, law enforcement and criminal legal system partners have worked collaboratively and innovatively to dispose of open criminal cases while upholding defendants’ constitutional rights and supporting public health and safety. For example, defendants and attorneys continue to be able to participate in certain non-trial court proceedings virtually, as authorized by a First Judicial District administrative order regarding the emergency use of Advanced Community Technology. In addition, a courtroom was opened in one of the county jails to facilitate additional proceedings, primarily preliminary hearings, during the judicial emergency.

Following changes in public health guidance, the First Judicial District announced that criminal jury trial capacity would increase to eight per week beginning Monday, March 14, 2022. For a little more than a year now, the courts have been conducting four jury trials per week. These proceedings prioritize cases in which defendants are in custody awaiting trial. By comparison, some other jurisdictions are not conducting any jury trials.

“When the statewide judicial emergency was declared back in March 2020, many of us hoped we’d be back to work staffing courtrooms within a couple of weeks. That turned out to be wildly optimistic as challenges to all of criminal justice have at times been enormous. I want to thank Administrative Judge Lisette Shirdan-Harris and Supervising Judge Lucretia Clemons and First Judicial District leaders and staff for their steady and nimble guidance throughout the COVID court emergency,” District Attorney Larry Krasner said. “The collaborative efforts of our system partners and dedicated professionals – including police, prosecutors, public defenders, private defense counsel, and support staff who worked non-stop to achieve safety and justice while following the Constitution and the law – are why we are now disposing of as many or more cases per week as we were before March 2020.”

The criminal courts closed, or disposed of, 807 cases the week of March 8, 2020. During the week of March 6, 2022, the criminal courts closed 1,130 cases. At its height, the backlog of open criminal cases reached 43,534 on March 7, 2021. As of last Friday, March 11, there were 33,433 open criminal cases in Philadelphia – still higher than the 28,465 cases open just before the judicial emergency, but well below the pandemic peak.  

“There was obviously a mountainous backlog of criminal cases in Philadelphia as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, through the very hard work and the thinking outside of the box of all of the criminal justice partners, I am happy to report that Philadelphia is clearing the backlog,” said Kathryn Cacciamani, representative of the Private Criminal Defense Bar. “I especially would like to thank the First Judicial District whose judges have made this possible. The judicial leadership team of Judge Lisette Shirdan-Harris, Judge Lucretia Clemons, and Judge Patrick Dugan should be recognized for putting in the hard work and brainpower to come up with innovative approaches that have alleviated the logjam of cases and better delivered justice in Philadelphia. Judge Clemons is always willing to listen to the partners and she has instituted a weekly in-person meeting where we brainstorm to come up with new and inventive ways to tackle criminal justice challenges in Philadelphia. We hope to keep this strong partnership as we move forward.”

DA Krasner added: “Our backlog of cases, especially the most serious cases, is real and daunting, but we are making real progress on reducing the backlog as well. Staffing remains a very serious problem for the courts, the public defenders, and DAO prosecutors due in part to inadequate funding to hire and retain talented employees, including Black and brown employees, in criminal justice work in Philadelphia. We look to City Council and the Mayor to solve that problem in the budget.” The Philadelphia jail population has also stabilized, despite the sharp increase in proportion of defendants who are still awaiting trial for serious and violent offenses such as homicide, non-fatal and fatal shootings, carjackings, and sexual assault. Approximately 4,500 people are being held in Philadelphia County jails, including more than 100 people who are awaiting transport to state custody. The population of people who are being held in Philadelphia jails is on par with population levels since 2018, when policing and prosecutorial reforms sharply reduced incarceration for non-violent misdemeanors related to homelessness, drug possession, mental illness, sex work, and petit theft.

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The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is the largest prosecutor’s office in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in the nation. It serves the more than 1.5 million residents of the City and County of Philadelphia, employing 600 lawyers, detectives, and support staff. The District Attorney’s Office is responsible for the prosecution of approximately 40,000 criminal cases annually. Learn more about the DAO by visiting PhillyDA.org.