Pilot sex offender court to open in Pittsburgh

When Allegheny County launches Pennsylvania’s first Sex Offender Court later this month, the rest of the state will be watching.  The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania chose Allegheny County (which includes Pittsburgh) as the test site for a new specialized court focused on Megan’s Law offenses and their related court proceedings.  If this model is successful, the judiciary hopes to institute it in every county throughout the state.

The program, which is modeled after a sex offender court in Buffalo, New York, directly addresses two recurrent issues with these types of cases, pre-trial delay and difficulty with reentry, while streamlining the entire process by creating judicial and prosecutorial staff skilled in the legal questions and procedures these cases encompass.

Cases first become involved in the specialized court at formal arraignment, right after charges are held for court at the preliminary hearing.  Cases will be scheduled for pre-trial conferences with one of the sex-offender court’s judges within sixty days of their preliminary hearing.  The plan also calls for expedited discovery and a brisk trial schedule with the goal of concluding these cases within approximately six months of a defendant being held for court.  On average, these cases currently take about 18-24 months to bring to trial.  Curtailing pre-trial delay is important for several reasons.  First, it  reduces the length of time between the offense occurring and the victim testifying.  This helps victims because it facilitates the healing process by allowing closure in an expedited manner rather than reinvigorating the trauma through testimony several years later.  It also limits the length of time innocent defendants must await trial to clear them name, or in the alternative, the length of time a guilty defendant may be on bail and able to reoffend.

If a defendant is convicted, through trial or a plea, this court is also designed to help rehabilitate those offenders.  If a defendant is sentenced to probation, they will follow a judicially designed program and have mandatory court appearances to ensure compliance.  In this manner, the court is similar to many drug court options available in Pennsylvania and other states.  The program will include probation officers designated specifically for sex offender court and require extensive monitoring of treatment compliance and graduated rewards and sanctions.  The goal of intensively supervised reentry is to provide a transition period where a defendant who may have been under extremely strict supervision and control in prison is placed back into the community with decreasing restrictions rather than the abrupt switch from incarceration to life on the streets.  The goal of supervised reentry is to decrease recidivism by providing tools and structure for successful reentry.

The program launches June 23, 2011.  Read more about it in the Supreme Court’s press release here and in news articles here and here.

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