Philly criminal court doubles trials, makes progress on COVID backlog

District Attorney Larry Krasner speaks Monday, March 14, outside the Juanita Kidd Stout Criminal Justice Center about efforts to catch up on criminal case backlogs.
Jack Tomczuk

The corner of 13th and Filbert streets was bustling Monday morning, as people shuffled in and out of the revolving door of the Juanita Kidd Stout Criminal Justice Center.

District Attorney Larry Krasner stood in the courthouse’s entrance, celebrating that the number of criminal trials being held — cut down significantly due to pandemic protocols — doubled Monday, from four a week to eight.

“We are at the point where we will get back to a system that is able to run more efficiently, so that accountability comes more quickly,” he said during a news conference. “So that there is resolution for the guilty and the innocent, and there is accountability where it belongs.”

The criminal courts are dealing with a backlog of nearly 33,500 open cases, down 10,000 from last year’s high but still 5,000 more than the period directly before the pandemic, Krasner added.

Last week, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys closed 1,130 cases, higher than the 807 cases that were disposed of in early March 2020 during the week that preceded the COVID-19 shutdown, according to the DA’s Office.

Krasner said many of the pending cases involve serious charges; for example, he added, there are about 650 open homicide cases.

To resolve those matters, which are often complicated, the court system, including the Defender’s Association of Philadelphia and the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, will need to be fully funded, Krasner said.

He indicated his office will be looking for Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council to boost funding for the DA’s Office, too.

“It’s not a tremendous amount more, but it’s necessary,” Krasner told reporters. “It’s time to pay the bills. Simply put, we need to get this done.”

However, Krasner’s office has not requested any budget increases related to personnel, only additional funding to pay for the return of a court diversion program, according to a Kenney administration source.

Jane Roh, a spokesperson for the DA’s office, said in an email that the funding request “was made in January and was based on operational needs and projections at that time.”

“As court capacity increases, we will continue to advocate with all of our criminal justice stakeholders for sufficient resources to ensure Philadelphians have the access to safety and justice they want and deserve,” she continued.

Kenney is set to propose his municipal budget on March 31, and a spokesman for his office declined to discuss specifics of the plan.

Kathryn Cacciamani, of the Private Defense Bar, speaks Monday, March 14, about the court system’s effort to recover from pandemic-related criminal case backlogs.Jack Tomczuk

At Monday’s press briefing, Kathryn Cacciamani, of the Private Criminal Defense Bar, said she, along with the DA’s office and the Defender Association, has been meeting weekly with Judge Lucretia C. Clemons, who oversees the criminal trial division.

“We believe these changes have really made an impact on the citizens of Philadelphia,” Cacciamani said. “And we’re hopeful that this line of communication is going to continue even beyond the pandemic.”

Krasner was also quick to commend judicial leadership, with whom he has occasionally clashed.

“While some other jurisdictions have not done a single jury trial in the last two years, Philadelphia dug in and has been trying as hard as they can to keep things moving,” he said.

He said stakeholders are hoping to resolve, or at least make major progress on, the case backlog over the next year.

Trials that used to occur in one courtroom take three rooms under current COVID-related regulations, Krasner explained. Jurors sit in the audience area to allow more spacing, while members of the public watch on a television in a nearby courtroom.

The First Judicial District removed a mask mandate last week for all vaccinated employees and the public, though jurors and unvaccinated people are still required to wear a mask.