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Pa. board discusses needs associated with fifth judge

October 24, 2008|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - After a fifth judge is elected to the 39th District of the Court of Common Pleas next year, that jurist is going to need a place to hang his or her robe, as well as a courtroom and staff, some implications of an expanding court system discussed Thursday by the Criminal Justice Advisory Board.

A judge will need chambers, office space for a secretary and clerk and other personnel might be needed - a court stenographer and sheriff's deputies. Space requirements have prompted the county to begin facilities planning with architects, County Administrator John Hart said.

The courthouse complex in Chambersburg consists of the old courthouse and the attached annex, which contains the four main courtrooms and court-related offices.

The county owns a building immediately east of the annex, but it would require extensive remodeling or demolition to make way for a new structure. Another option could be the former Harmon's building on North Main Street, which is for sale, and part of the annex basement will be vacated when 911 center moves to the Cumberland Valley Business Park.

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"We're looking at everything. Nothing is off the table," County Commissioner Bob Thomas said of the study.

The courtrooms are rarely in use at the same time, so an initial solution will involve scheduling their use more tightly, Court Administrator Neil Burkholder said recently.

Another issue is limited courthouse parking, attorney John Sharpe said.

"Franklin County is the largest Fifth Class county" in terms of court caseload, said Rick Pierce, the judicial programs administrator for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. The 39th District also includes Fulton County, which requires a judge going to McConnellsburg, Pa., several days a month.

Steps have been taken to streamline proceedings and use court time more efficiently. Judge Richard Walsh said the call of the trial list for inmates is now held at the county jail and many of the early bugs have been worked out.

"We called 16 cases when I presided there in June. We did 49 cases last Friday," Walsh said, which also reduces the need to transport prisoners to and from the courthouse.

Forty-nine video conferences have been held this year, further limiting inmate transports from the jail and state prisons, Walsh said. Another 195 video interviews have been conducted with county inmates, said Public Defender Michael Toms.

"It's always a security risk when you transport somebody," Warden John Wetzel said. It is also costly, but a state prison reform law will provide some relief, he said.

Deputies now travel across the state to bring prisoners in for court proceedings, with the county housing them, Wetzel said. Under the new law, the state will move prisoners to the nearest state prison, in this case in Camp Hill, Pa., with deputies transporting them back and forth the same day.

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