D.C. Superior Court, where eight months may elapse before most misdemeanor criminal cases come to trial, will launch an experimental plan next week to reduce the misdemeanor trial backlog.
Beginning Monday all misdemeanors criminal cases will be assigned to a special team of six judges who will hear only misdemeanor cases.
Newly assigned cases will be scheduled for a status hearing 21 days after they are first presented in arraignment court. Trial will be set for 21 the new plan, according to a memorandum sent to the court's judges last week by Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I.
Currently, misdemeanor criminal cases are placed on a "master calendar" and are assigned to the first available judge assigned to hear misdemeanor cases.
According to court asministrator Larry Polanski the typical misdemeanor criminal case now takes up to 240 days to get through the court system. Through the new plan the court hopes to reduce the delays by at least half, Polanski said.
One problem with the existing system is that there can be 25 or more cases scheduled for trial on any given day and only one available judge, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Rhea, deputy chief of the misdemeanor trial branch.
"This often means that we call government witnesses down to court expecting several trials to go on as scheduled and there are no judges to hear the cases," Rhea said. In such instances, witnesses who have waited all day without going to trial are paid, released and told to come back on a new trial, date, Rhea said.
Under the new system, once a case has been assigned to a judge that judge will be responsible for moving the case through the system, according to Polanski.
The court's current misdemeanor backlog of between 3,000 and 3,500 cases has been divided equally among the six misdemeanor criminal case judges. New cases will be assigned to each judge in turn as the case passes through arraignment court.
The need for a new approach to misdemeanor criminal trials was indicate by research done recently by the Court Delay Project, a federally funded program.