Dauphin County, Pa., Misses Deadlines Amid Digitization

The criminal convictions appeals process in the county has gotten longer this year for at least 35 convicts amid delays by the county courts and clerk’s office as they work to transition from paper to electronic records.

by Christine Vendel, The Patriot-News / October 31, 2019
Shutterstock/smolaw

(TNS) — The process to appeal a criminal conviction in Pennsylvania takes many months.

For defendants who are innocent or who can document critical errors with their convictions, the additional time spent behind bars can represent another layer of injustice.

The arduous process got even longer this year for at least 35 convicts in Dauphin County, Pa., after months of delays by the county courts and clerk’s office in getting their case files to the Superior Court for consideration.

The unusual surge in missed deadlines is mostly due to a transition in the clerk’s office from paper to electronic court records, according to Dauphin County Court Clerk Dale Klein. The situation has triggered the Superior Court to issue a series of “overdue” notices that got the attention of the county’s president judge.

Defense attorneys told PennLive that the Superior Court can’t consider the merits of an appeal until the lower case records are sent from the county court. The records are supposed to be transmitted from the clerk’s office to Superior Court within 60 days of the appeal being filed by the defendant. When the process is delayed, attorneys said, it pushes back deadlines for attorneys to file briefs and delays the entire Superior Court process and any potential remediation or recourse.

One particular kind of appeal, post-conviction relief, can only be filed while a defendant is still serving a sentence, attorneys said, and must be filed within one year of the sentence becoming final.

“It’s definitely not a no-harm, no-foul situation,” said an attorney who did not want to be named for fear of retribution.

President Judge Richard A. Lewis in August sent an apology letter to the Superior Court acknowledging the delays and pledging that court staff would help the clerk’s office get the remaining “overdue” cases transmitted. Lewis said his office “made it abundantly clear of the need for the quick completion” of the transmittals.

Lewis said he also met with the county’s information technology director to stress “the priority that needs to be given to this critical backlog of case records.”

But two months later, deadlines are still being missed, prompting Judge Scott Evans to issue an order this month demanding that the clerk’s office transmit a particular case by Oct. 31. The case was successfully transmitted late last week.

“I’ve been practicing law for 20 years in different counties across the Commonwealth and I can tell you, this is unusual,” said the attorney. “You will see this in ones or twos and it’s usually an anomaly. But this can’t be explained as anomalous because of the sheer number of cases and the duration of the problem.”

Klein, a Republican elected to the clerk’s position since 2010 who is seeking reelection on Tuesday, blamed the delays on an unpredictable increase in appeal cases this year, the retirement of a key employee and unexpected computer issues as the office transitioned to electronic filing.

Klein also noted that 15 out of the 35 delayed cases would have missed the deadlines from the Superior Court anyway because the county court judges filed their opinions past the deadlines.

Klein said her office has been working diligently for the past year to try to overcome the computer issues and staffing issues, but said she was not aware of any potential or actual harm to defendants.

Klein disagreed that defendants could lose appeal rights, and said attorneys could contact her office for a particular case to be “expedited,” or request bail for convicted clients while they are appealing their cases.

“There is zero chance that a defendant’s rights will be adversely impacted,” she said.

The backlog of cases at the clerk’s office began about two years ago, when Klein agreed to be among the first counties in the Commonwealth to transmit records electronically to the Superior Court.

Once that process started, Klein said, problems with her computers’ speed and software and her office’s staffing were exposed. She said she did not believe the problems could have been foreseen or avoided and she did not believe her office could have done anything to better process the appealed cases.

“It’s not as easy as people might think it is,” Klein said, referring to scanning in thousands of paper documents, making them searchable and sending them electronically. “It’s very labor-intensive on the front end.”

The employee who had been handling appeals retired late last year and the position remained vacant for nine months as she tried to fill the position. In the meantime, other employees filled in.

“We’ve taken every step that we can take,” Klein said. “It’s been a perfect storm of an enormous caseload and an okay computer system that couldn’t handle the influx. We were working on getting everything to work electronically when our office got slammed (with appeals.)”

Once the process began to submit electronically, Klein said, Superior Court officials would no longer accept paper records, even to help get through the difficult transition.

To address the ongoing delays, Klein said her office hired a company to create customized software to make the scanning process more efficient and ordered new computers. The county is footing the bill for $17,000 to $30,000 in equipment but the $120,000 software tab will be paid through the court’s automation fee, paid by defendants, she said.

The clerk’s office still hasn’t caught up with a backlog of appeals, but Klein said she hoped to be caught up within weeks.

Mary Klatt, an attorney in the Dauphin County public defender’s office, said she had seen the letter from the president judge and was aware of about seven indigent defendants on the list who were represented by attorneys in her office. Those cases have since been processed, she said, and her office expects to closely monitor timelines for appealed cases going forward.

Klatt said longer delays could increase any potential harm a client could face, especially if the client had a short sentence.

“With post-conviction relief petitions, there are certain timeframes that have to be followed,” she said. “It’s a very nuanced area of law."

No client wants to see a delay in an appeal, Klatt said.

“Delays in general are things that should be avoided in any legal situation,” she said.

©2019 The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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