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United Way of Lancaster County


President Judge: Court won’t bring outside groups into procedural discussions

President Judge David Ashworth. (Source: OUL file)

The Lancaster County court system “will not participate in any public discussions” of its internal practices and procedures, President Judge David Ashworth said Wednesday.

“While we will take all reasonable recommendations under advisement,” responsibility for court operations “is solely the responsibility of the Judiciary and its designees,” Ashworth said in an email to One United Lancaster.

One United Lancaster had asked Ashworth to comment on Reimagine Justice Lancaster’s request to the county commissioners to convene a “Justice & Safety Working Group” composed of local government, law enforcement and community stakeholders to reduce incarceration.

Reimagine Justice is a new coalition of local advocacy groups focused on criminal justice issues. It envisions the working group looking both at the criminal justice process and at expanding social services to head off the behaviors leading to arrest and incarceration.

Court procedure must comply with federal and state law, the rules of criminal procedure, and the relevant decisions of state and federal court, the president judge said: “It does not operate pursuant to the ‘policy recommendations’ of advocacy groups, community action committees or individual agendas.”

County Prison data shows that the majority of inmates there are being held pretrial, and many are charged with nonviolent offenses. Reimagine Justice contends that significant decreases in the prison’s headcount could be achieved safely, allowing the replacement correctional facility that is being designed to have fewer beds than the 1,000 now envisioned.

It’s encouraging that a wide range of organizations are discussing how to become more engaged in reducing crime, incarceration and recidivism, Ashworth said. However, “the independence of the judiciary as the third branch of government is paramount,” he said; consequently, “none of these organizations will be involved in the Court’s internal discussions.”

“(I)f any of these groups wish to effect change in the court system, they should direct their efforts to the Legislature,” he said.

He noted that, at his direction, Judge Merrill Spahn is leading a review of the court system. That is being done in light of recent state Supreme Court directives and legislation, including probation reforms that Gov. Josh Shapiro signed into law last year. The prospect of the new correctional facility was not a factor, Ashworth said.