WILKES-BARRE — Luzerne County’s new central court is still on track to open Oct. 1 in a building next to the prison on Water Street, the county’s president judge said Friday.
The county Veteran Affairs Office, which currently occupies this building, announced it is moving next week into another county-owned property in Forty Fort.
Court leaders have been trying to establish a central court for more than a year, arguing it is more efficient to process magisterial-level criminal cases at one place instead of district judge offices scattered throughout the county. The change is expected to speed up case processing and the weeding out of defendants who don’t require incarceration, possibly reducing the number of inmates who must be lodged at taxpayer expense.
About 60 percent of county prison inmates are awaiting adjudication, as opposed to serving sentences, compared to a national average of 30 percent, court officials have said.
“You will see a better job of moving defendants through the system because they have a right to speedy trial. The net effect, hopefully, is that most prison inmates will be sentenced, not awaiting trial,” said Court of Common Pleas President Judge Richard Hughes.
County Veteran Affairs Director James Spagnola said he supports his office relocation because the new site at 2009 Wyoming Ave. by the Wyoming Valley Airport in Forty Fort has ample parking and is accessible.
Veteran Affairs, which has been in the Water Street building about a decade, helps serve an estimated 25,700 county veterans.
“It might even be better for veterans coming into the office because they won’t encounter all the traffic associated with the prison,” Spagnola said, stressing accommodating veterans was a priority.
Renovations at the Water Street building will begin soon, Hughes said.
The addition of a separate inmate entrance, security screening system, partitions, window bars and other modifications to convert the former residential structure into a central court will be funded by a $25,000 allocation in the court’s 2017 budget and require no additional county funding, Hughes reiterated Friday.
The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, or AOPC, will purchase and install computer systems and wiring, he said.
Police will escort inmates on foot to the central court for proceedings, which is expected to reduce periodic traffic jams at the prison sally port dock area. Central court will also eliminate the need for police to make two trips back and forth to their local district court office for hearings.
In addition, the new system will require prosecutors to get involved in cases sooner at the magisterial level. These district attorney’s office representatives have the ability to negotiate plea agreements, determine if the initial evidence supports charges that have been filed, and weigh in on bail.
The county’s 16 district judges will take turns presiding over central court sessions.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.