Changes that Bradford County District Attorney Chad Salsman brought to the county’s criminal justice system when he took office in January have resulted in substantial savings of taxpayer dollars, he reported this past week.
When a defendant is first charged with a crime, their first court appearance is in front of a magisterial district judge, Salsman explained. The defendant is entitled to a preliminary hearing to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to move the case forward to the courthouse. Approximately 95 percent of the time, a defendant waives this hearing.
Prior to District Attorney Salsman’s tenure, the courts would schedule every defendant for a preliminary hearing every week. Tuesday mornings were allotted to Judge Larry Hurley, Tuesday afternoons were allotted to Judge Fred Wheaton, Wednesday mornings were allotted to Judge Todd Carr, and Wednesday afternoons were allotted to Judge Jonathan Wilcox.
Each office each week could expect the arrival of a dozen or so defendants. This required each arresting officer to appear at the appropriate magistrate’s office. As soon as the officer set foot inside the court office, he or she would be entitled to four hours of overtime pay regardless of how long they actually were in court.
“On any given week, multiple police officers could be found milling around the magistrates’ offices doing nothing except waiting for their case to be called. In nearly every case, the defendant would waive the hearing and the officer would leave, having used up taxpayer dollars and accomplishing nothing. Additionally, every minute the police officers were in court was a minute they were not out in the community keeping our streets safe,” Salsman said.
“Not only were police officers wasting time at the magistrates’ offices, but because the possibility of a hearing always existed, the District Attorney’s Office had to have all of the victims and witnesses at the magistrates’ offices just in case a defendant wanted a hearing. This required people to take off work and spend hours sitting around, only to be told later that their presence wasn’t needed because a preliminary hearing wasn’t necessary,” he continued. “At times, hearings would be postponed because a defendant did not have an attorney or perhaps did not even come to court. A witness would be informed that they would have to come back another time, resulting in another loss of wages.”
Prior to taking office, Salsman met with the judges of the Court of Common Pleas and the magistrates with the idea of creating what he called Appearance Days. Appearance Days occur every other week, alternating weeks with Preliminary Hearings.
At Appearance Days, the only people who have to be present are the defendant, the defense attorney, the prosecutor and the magistrate. Prior to the Appearance Day, the District Attorney’s Office has already discussed the case with the arresting officer and any victim and obtained their input. The prosecution and the defense discuss whether the defendant wishes to have a full preliminary hearing or not. If the defendant chooses to waive their hearing, the case moves forward to the courthouse. If the defendant requests a hearing, the case is rescheduled to the following week and the arresting officer and any witnesses are notified to appear.
“With the vast majority of defendants waiving their hearings, this has resulted in a much more efficient use of everyone’s time,” said Salsman. “Police officers can remain working the streets and not charging overtime for court; witnesses can remain at work; and victims do not have to lose sleep worrying about whether or not they are going to have to testify.”
“It was especially fortuitous that this system was implemented in January because the coronavirus changed everything in March,” he continued. “Prior to this new system, the magistrates’ offices would be packed with people – almost all of whom were wasting their time.” After Salsman’s changes, the offices have had far less people in them, greatly reducing the risk of the spread of disease. When hearings are held, advanced communication technology has been utilized creating an even safer environment.
The final change has been in how prisoners are handled. Under the old system, the sheriff’s department had to transport prisoners to the magistrates only to have the defendants sign waiver papers in most of the cases. Now, the prisoners remain at the jail and communication is conducted via video. This allows the sheriff’s department to spend more time serving warrants and performing other duties rather than transporting inmates back and forth from the jail to the magistrates’.
“I really want to thank all of the judges for having an open mind and being willing to try something new,” Salsman said. “Sometimes changes can be unsettling and there is a temptation to keep doing things the way they always have been done,” he continued. “I am always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of our criminal justice system. I am so pleased at how well this change has worked in saving time and taxpayers’ money.”