Once a model for other central courts in Pennsylvania, Wilkes-Barre's Central Court is set to close by the end of the month.
Preparations have already begun to schedule preliminary hearings for criminal cases at the two magisterial district offices in Wilkes-Barre.
The closure of Wilkes-Barre Central Court, located in the Thomas C. Thomas building on Union Street, is an attempt to save $150,000 to offset a projected $1.25 million county deficit. "Central court was a model for seven counties when we opened up Central Court (in 2006)," said Martin Kane, one of two magisterial district judges in Wilkes-Barre. "In my mind, we're going backwards, but I can appreciate (President) Judge Tom Burke's position with the budget."
Wilkes-Barre Central Court was initially established as Luzerne County Central Court in 2006 and was designed to speed cases through the court system.
To the dismay of a few police chiefs that criticized its operations, cases were disposed at a much quicker rate with plea agreements being worked out between an assistant district attorney and a defense attorney.
Defendants met with probation officials or, if charged with drunken driving, were given instructions on the spot to begin their court-mandated alcohol safe driving classes.
"At Central Court, everything was negotiated," Kane said. "By the time the case got to the Court of Common Pleas, everything was worked out."
All that changed when Central Court was modified in 2009, sending preliminary hearings back to the magisterial districts where the crimes allegedly took place, except for the two magisterial districts in Wilkes-Barre.
When Central Court opened to host all preliminary hearings in the county, the district attorney's office was provided additional funds to hire four assistant district attorneys and support staff to accommodate cases.
It remained unknown if the District Attorney's Office will lose funding with the closing of Central Court.
According to statistics from the Administration Office of Pennsylvania Courts, there were 5,806 criminal case filings within 17 magisterial districts in Luzerne County in 2011. In 2006, when Central Court opened, there were 6,940 criminal cases filed.
County court administrator Michael Shucosky said the closing of Wilkes-Barre Central Court is being performed in stages with preliminary hearings being scheduled in advance.
State law mandates preliminary hearings to be held within three to 10 days after the preliminary arraignment.
"Everything is going back to the home court of the magisterial districts and because this is the City of Wilkes-Barre, it's going back to Kane and (District Judge Rick) Cronauer," Shucosky said.
Shucosky said senior district judges, Andrew Barilla and Thomas Sharkey, will assist if there is a backlog of cases.
Edward Lewis, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 829-7196.