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New positions could lighten workload in Franklin Co. Court

December 30, 2006|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - The January trial term in Franklin County Court lists 469 cases, scores of them continued from November, but three new positions approved in the 2007 budget for the District Attorney's Office could speed bringing future cases to a conclusion.

"We have a lot of cases that get continued because we don't have complete discovery materials like police reports, surveillance tapes," District Attorney John F. Nelson said.

One position in the county budget approved this week is a pretrial county detective to collect the documents and information that must be shared with defense attorneys, he said.

When defense attorneys have in hand the evidence prosecutors will use against a defendant, it can speed plea negotiations or help those attorneys raise issues on behalf of their clients, Nelson said.

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"Our goal is to get them all the information within two or three weeks," with the possibility of reaching a plea agreement by mandatory arraignment, Nelson said.

Another new position is a sentencing guidelines coordinator to calculate prior record scores for cases, Nelson said. That involves researching offenders' criminal records, including offenses in other counties and states.

The information also can help defendants in deciding whether to enter a plea or go to trial because they will have an accurate idea of the criminal penalties they face, he said.

The aim is to get defendants to enter plea agreements with agreed-upon sentences earlier in the judicial process, Nelson said.

Both positions were recommended by the Case Flow Management Committee of the county's Criminal Justice Advisory Board, Nelson said. Filling the positions is contingent on the county receiving state grants to pay for them, he said.

If the grants are approved, it would be about mid-year before the positions are filled, Nelson said.

Not dependent on a grant is a legal secretary position, which Nelson said will help administer the burgeoning juvenile criminal caseload.

Public Defender Michael Toms is slated to get a sixth full-time assistant public defender in 2007. Having another attorney will relieve him of some courtroom work, allowing more time for necessary staff training and administrative duties, he said.

Prosecutors and defenders have seen a steady rise in criminal cases. Clerk of Courts William Vandrew said there were 2,081 criminal cases in 2004, followed by 2,230 in 2005.

The number for 2006 also is more than 2,200, with cases still being filed, Vandrew said.

"Caseload is one of those things that just creeps up on you, and you don't notice until you get swamped," Toms said, adding that his office has not quite reached that point.

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