Senate Advisory Panel Hears Proposals for Reform

A state Senate advisory panel composed of legal professionals, judges and academics heard testimony on April 23, 2012 regarding proposals to overhaul the Philadelphia criminal justice system. Veteran former prosecutor and Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts board member Walter M. Phillips, Jr. addressed issues of witness intimidation and the “disrespect” of criminal defendants who fail to attend scheduled court hearings.
In his testimony, Mr. Phillips advocated for returning to the use of indicting grand juries in select cases where there was a threat of witness intimidation. The grand juries would replace the current open preliminary hearings and would allow witnesses’ identities to be kept secret until trial. This proposal is opposed by the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers however, in November of 2011, the rules committee voted to recommend approval of indicting grand juries.
Mr. Phillips also proposed trials in abstentia for criminal defendants who had “no good excuse” for their absence. Under his proposal, judges would be required to warn individuals who are arrested that the trial would proceed if they chose not to appear. He predicted “The warning alone is going to change the fugitive rates.”
Both proposals are currently pending before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The Philadelphia Inquirer covered the story here.