Zone Court System
Philadelphia criminal cases are processed in a Zone Court System that breaks the city into six zones based on geographic location. Each Zone gets its own floor at the Criminal Justice Center.
All within the Zone Court System, at the Municial Court level, our attorneys represent defendants at preliminary arraignments immediately after arrest and later in the Municipal Court at bench trials on misdemeanor charges, crimes whose maximum penalty ranges from one year up to five years in prison. Attorneys also represent clients at administrative bench warrant hearings following a courtroom failure to appear.
Also, within the Zone Court System, attorneys represent clients at preliminary hearings where the defendant is charged with at least one felony. If the district attorney presents a "prima facie" case, the court will hold the defendant for trial. After preliminary hearing, a defendant charged with a lesser severity felony charge may decide to waive a jury trial and choose to be tried by a judge sitting alone in the Common Pleas Court If the defendant wishes to be tried by a jury, the case will be transferred to a Major Trial courtroom.
Court administration designates serious or complex felony cases as Major Trials. Most of these cases are tried as jury trials. The Defender Association staffs major trial courtrooms. Only defenders with over two years of trial experience are selected to staff these courtrooms. In addition, the Major Trial Division handles all Jury Demand cases.
Special Defense/Homicide/Death Penalty Unit
Selected experienced lawyers receive a multi-year assignment in our Special Defense Unit which provides representation in high publicity cases, cases which are legally and/or factually complex, and cases that demand one-on-one representation.
In the spring of 1993, this unit began accepting appointments in felony homicide and death penalty cases. Working with investigators and mitigation specialists and assisted by our appellate staff and the Director of Law Reform, our SDU attorneys provide guilt and penalty phase representation while pursing important law reform and systemic reform issues.
Juvenile Court Division
Attorneys in this unit represent juveniles (individuals who are arrested before the age of 18) in delinquency cases and at certification hearings where the District Attorney petitions to try the juvenile in adult court.
Juvenile Special Defense Unit
Experienced trial lawyers are specially assigned to this unit for a two-year rotation representing juvenile clients. Attorneys handle high publicity cases, direct file cases where the juvenile has been arrested and processed through the adult system, cases which are legally and/or factually complex, and cases that demand one-on-one representation.
Probation/Parole and Sentencing Alternatives Unit
Attorneys represent clients at county and state detainer hearings and at county and state parole or probation violation hearings before judges and before the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole.
A unit of 19 attorneys, most of whom are permanently assigned, represent defendants in the Pennsylvania appellate courts and, on occasion, in the United States Supreme Court. Appellate lawyers also frequently serve as law resources for members of the trial staff. Trial attorneys are also assisted by a senior trial attorney who is in charge of all law reform issues. The Director of Law Reform specializes in the development and handling of test case litigation which includes work in the state and federal appellate courts, as well as in the United States Supreme Court. The Director of Law Reform also educates staff as to the impact of new statutes, judicial decisions and rules of court. He and other members of the Appeals Division testify at legislative and administrative hearings offering the Association's response to proposed legislation and rules.
Attorneys appear in Miscellaneous Criminal Motions Court and represent defendants in a variety of matters including: bail petitions, return of property, habeas corpus hearings, writ of certiorari hearings, extradition hearings and other miscellaneous motions and petitions.
Mental Health Division
The criminal Mental Health Unit supervises all cases involving issues of competency to stand trial, insanity and criminal commitments to mental hospitals. The civil Mental Health Unit represents most respondents at involuntary civil mental health commitment hearings and fights for the rights of the mentally ill in its appeals from administrative and trial rulings.
Child Advocacy Unit
Lawyers in this unit represent dependent children in Family Court cases involving child.