Luzerne County officials debate merits of new central court in budget sessions

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - [email protected] | October 24th, 2017 11:23 pm

WILKES-BARRE — Luzerne County Chief Public Defender Steven Greenwald’s request for two additional staffers Tuesday set off a heated debate about the pros and cons of the county’s new central court.

Greenwald said he would not be seeking a clerk stenographer at $25,200 or an investigator to be paid $27,200 if the court had not switched to central court, which corralled all magisterial-level criminal cases in the county’s northern half at a county-owned building next to the Water Street prison in Wilkes-Barre.

Court officials are requiring public defenders to represent all offenders appearing at central court unless the offenders secure private legal counsel or the public defender’s office later establishes the offenders don’t meet income limits, Greenwald said.

He estimates his office will be inundated with 600 to 800 additional cases annually. Some would have ended up in his attorneys’ hands eventually, but not until they advanced to the Common Pleas level, prompting offenders to seek representation, he said.

While the new central court will increase the burden on his office, it may lead to inmate reductions at the county prison, he said, estimating the impact won’t be measurable for a year.

County Court Administrator Michael Shucosky opened his subsequent court budget presentation by defending the central court concept.

County statistics show public defender attorneys already handled more than 90 percent of the 4,227 criminal cases in the county last year, either at the beginning or as cases advanced, Shucosky said.

“One of the reasons for central court is for them to have representation at all stages,” Shucosky told council, noting attorney involvement sooner could speed up the processing of cases and get more inmates out of prison.

He reiterated that 60 percent of county inmates are awaiting adjudication, as opposed to serving sentences. Reducing that percentage could save the county millions of dollars, he predicted.

Greenwald said bail amounts also must be addressed to put a dent in the inmate population.

The public defender’s proposed 2018 budget is $2.6 million, an increase of $107,194. The office employs 47 without the two added positions.

Councilman Stephen A. Urban complained the state mandates public defender representation but does not fund the office, suggesting the county pursue litigation attempting to force state payment.

Greenwald said Pennsylvania may be the only remaining state that doesn’t provide funding for county public defenders. The state should study and address the situation, he said.

The county’s proposed 2018 court budget is $19.7 million next year, which is a 2 percent increase, Shucosky said.

This covers court administration, probation services, stenographers, domestic relations and magisterial court offices.

Court branches expect to generate $8.7 million in revenue next year, for a net cost of $10.99 million in the county’s general fund operating budget.

Shucosky said the 2 percent spending increase stems largely from two, one-time significant expenditures:

• New jury management software, which will cost an estimated $130,000 and replace a failing and out-of-date homemade system that is more than 15 years old. The county sends out more than 23,000 jury duty notices annually. The new system will save money through automation improvements.

• Replacement of equipment used for video conferences and hearings that will cost $120,000. The current equipment is antiquated and often breaks down, requiring inmate transport to court proceedings or rescheduling of hearings.

The court has requested two new judicial assistants/clerks at $27,000 each at the request of Children and Youth and the state, and the state will fund the positions, officials said.

“We tried very hard to keep it in line and raise revenue too,” Shucosky told council.

$35K settlement approved

A council majority also approved a $35,000 litigation settlement with former Emergency Management Agency worker Loretta Presto.

Citizen Ed Chesnovitch asked for the settlement amount during public comment at the start of Tuesday’s meeting but was informed it would not be released until the time of the vote.

The county administration started delaying settlement releases this year, arguing that public discussion could compromise litigation that must proceed if settlements are rejected. During a break in the meeting, citizen Brian Shiner questioned this practice, saying the public has no opportunity to weigh in on the amount before a vote.

The administration recommended the settlement to avoid an expected tens of thousands of dollars in additional legal fees and a potentially lengthy appeals process following the jury trial verdict.

Presto, of Shickshinny, alleged she was treated unfairly due to her disabilities and was not provided proper accommodations, leading to her 2016 resignation.

In its response earlier this year, the county disputed many of Presto’s assertions, stated that she did not satisfactorily perform her job duties and responsibilities and maintained the alleged medical conditions do not constitute disabilities within the meaning of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Council members Urban and Kathy Dobash objected to the settlement, saying an accurate and complete briefing on all aspects of the case was not presented in closed-door executive session. Urban said the county is setting “bad precedence” for future suits by settling.

Council members Edward Brominski and Eileen Sorokas also voted against the settlement.


By Jennifer Learn-Andes

[email protected]

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.