Lancaster County will pilot the state's first night court sessions aimed at better accommodating the schedules of workers and parents facing criminal charges.
The two sessions, which will be Thursday and June 27 from 4:30-7 p.m., follow an amnesty event in November, which helped people with outstanding misdemeanor warrants avoid arrest by appearing in court at night.
This project broadens the types of cases the court will consider beyond misdemeanor warrants.
Typically, hearings in Lancaster County Court run on an 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday-through-Friday schedule.
After seeing the success of the nighttime warrant amnesty event, Lancaster County Attorney Pat Condon approached the county court's judges about further testing the night court model.
"Sometimes if we can make (the court process) more accommodating to the people, then that’s what we want to do,” Condon said in an interview.
These two sessions will slightly expand the kinds of cases that can be heard to include some non-custody felony case-procedural hearings.
Evening and night court sessions aren't uncommon in major cities such as New York, where some judges hold hearings until 1 a.m. Night courts are held in at least six states, including Ohio and Wisconsin, according to the National Center for State Courts.
Organizers say attendance over the two pilot sessions will be key in determining whether Lancaster County's population growth in the past few years has reached a critical mass where the court could sustain a regular night court.
"There’s a lot of reasons why people miss court, and very few people who miss court are actually trying to flee," Lancaster County Public Defender Joe Nigro said.
In many cases, judges regularly try to accommodate the schedules of people, especially when they're representing themselves, Lancaster County Court Judge Laurie Yardley said.
However, judges don't like cases to linger on the docket too long, especially if it's been a couple of months and there's been no action, she said.
She hears about people facing misdemeanor charges whose jobs put them in precarious positions.
"They risk losing their jobs if they come to court," Yardley said.
Complicating matters for people is that a 9 a.m. court hearing in county court may mean the accused is done in 10 minutes or waits more than two hours, Nigro said.
Mistakes happen, but for some who miss court, that mistake can snowball into a paralyzing fear of what might happen, he said.
"People are presumed innocent, and yet sometimes the system doesn’t treat them that way," Nigro said.
Parents who can't find a babysitter often have to bring their child into county court, which isn't convenient for anyone, Condon said.
Nigro praised the previous misdemeanor warrant amnesty event, which Condon launched as a project in conjunction with the Lincoln City Attorney's Office.
At the evening court session in November, 90 misdemeanor warrants were cleared to help people avoid possible arrest over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Yardley heard from most people at that session that their strict work schedules kept them from getting the matter handled during the day, she said.
The upcoming pilot night court sessions will be to handle misdemeanor warrants, enter misdemeanor case pleas, hold non-custody felony case docket calls or preliminary hearing waivers and hold hearings for someone not in custody in a felony case who is pleading to charges reduced to a misdemeanor.
People representing themselves should call the criminal/traffic desk of the Court Clerk’s office at 402- 441-8959 for instructions on how to set their case for one of these special sessions.
Anyone with a felony warrant or who has a misdemeanor warrant stemming from a Class 1 misdemeanor sentencing they missed won't be able to take advantage of the pilot night court sessions, according to a news release.
If they appear, deputies will jail them, and their cases will be taken up the next day, according to court rules.
Running two night court sessions will have some cost, as court clerks and sheriff's deputies providing security need to be there to staff operations, Condon said.
City Attorney Jeff Kirkpatrick and Condon agree it's a cheaper and wiser use of public resources to recall the misdemeanor warrants and process those cases when the court can rather than having police officers arrest them and take them to jail.
Someone with a misdemeanor warrant stemming from their failure to pay a city fine doesn't need to sit in jail, Kirkpatrick said.
As best it can, the court system should work to meet people where they are, Kirkpatrick said.
For example, in the 1980s, a judge in Philadelphia heard the initial appearances of drunk and disorderly fans arrested at games in the city's stadium, Kirkpatrick said.
Offering night court in Lancaster County has the potential to be a win-win for the local legal system, but these sessions will test whether the time is right, he said.
"We’re in uncharted territory here,” Kirkpatrick said.