A realignment of how criminal cases are handled in the Washington County district attorney’s office is scheduled to take place next month, when a single prosecutor will be assigned to a case from its origin in a district judge’s office through its resolution.
This would be a change from the current system in which one set of assistant district attorneys handles preliminary hearings before district judges, then transfers the case file to a different assistant district attorney who is in charge of it once it reaches Washington County Court.
“The current system in Washington County, to me, is antiquated,” said Dennis Paluso, first assistant district attorney. “We have younger or newer assistant district attorneys going to preliminary hearings to handle cases at a magisterial office and the more experienced attorneys handling them at the common pleas level. Two attorneys are going through similar preparation doing some of the same things, reviewing files, interviewing witnesses, determining prior record scores, and then you go and do it all over again. It’s not a good use of taxpayer dollars in light of our increase in cases.”
There were approximately 4,400 criminal cases filed in Washington County last year, about 1,000 of which were disposed of at the magisterial level.
Under the new system, known in criminal justice circles as “vertical prosecution,” victims and witnesses should be dealing with the same assistant district attorney, of whom there are a dozen, which would lend continuity to the process and fewer failures to bring a defendant to trial within the legally imposed amount of time. The county’s 11 district judges will be divided into two zones, and each district judge will have a designated day for hearings on misdemeanors and felonies, enabling an assistant district attorney to be present for nearly all, if not all hearings.
“I would say we cover over 80 percent of the prelims,” Paluso said. “The goal is to get to 100 percent.” The assignment of a single assistant district attorney to a case would continue through post-conviction appeals.
“Bigger counties have what you would call an appellate division, but that’s not what we have in Washington County,” Paluso said in an interview between cases at a local district judge’s office Thursday.
District Attorney Gene Vittone, shortly after taking office in 2012, discussed the concept with the county commissioners in a budget forum. Paluso said President Judge Katherine B. Emery and the Washington County court administrator’s office aided in developing the new system in conjunction with magisterial offices.