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A newly designated Gun Court scheduled to open Monday will funnel Philadelphia’s minor firearm-related cases through one courtroom and specially manage accused offenders with intensive pre-trial and probationary supervision. The special attention paid to the offenders is intended to educate and rehabilitate them and immediately respond if they violate court orders or break the law again. “Any time you specifically identify the purpose of a court, the emphasis is an inhibiting factor on the offender,” said Frank Snyder, co-chief of the city’s Adult Probation and Parole Department, who was involved in planning the Gun Court. “Just the fact of going to Gun Court – that they’re being identified as gun offenders – is a big deal to them.” Under the direction of Snyder and his co-chief Robert Malvestuto, six probation officers will be assigned to Gun Court. Instead of the usual 200 cases to supervise, the officers will have 50 to 60 each, allowing for more face-to-face contact, drug testing and other attention, Snyder said. Required community service and counseling for anger management or conflict resolution would also be a part of the probation sentences for many individuals passing through Gun Court. Convicted individuals would also have to promise in open court to surrender any firearms in their possession within 10 days, said Kevin Reynolds, who’s coordinating Gun Court logistics for the probation department. Courtroom 701 in the Criminal Justice Center will be Gun Court headquarters, where Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart will preside. To start, 400 common pleas cases will be transferred to the Gun Court docket, said Dave Wasson, deputy court administrator for the criminal trial division. The courtroom will see both jury trials and non-jury trials. Minehart will try individuals accused of violating the state Uniform Firearms Act in cases where the firearms charge is the most serious of the offenses involved. So he won’t be dealing with homicides or robberies committed at gunpoint. “It’s a courtroom like any other courtroom – the difference is we’re going to be doing nothing else but gun cases,” Minehart said. “There’s no difference with the trial or how you weigh the punishments or sentence people.” Minehart’s experience as a probation officer, prosecutor and defense attorney should serve him well in the role, he said. Two assistant district attorneys will be assigned to Minehart’s courtroom, as well as a defense attorney from the Defender Association of Philadelphia, the judge said. The special attention for firearm offenders will occur before and after trial. Approximately $775,000 in state grants will pay for the specialized staff: two pretrial case managers to keep track of accused gun offenders out on bail; the six probation officers to supervise them after sentencing; one coordinator; and one part-time researcher. The grant money is projected to support the Gun Court through June 2006. By then, “the hope would be to get the grant money again,” Wasson said. The Gun Court initiative was brainstormed after a meeting of legislators and law enforcement officers who convened last year to discuss ways of reducing gun violence in the city in the wake of the death of Faheem Thomas-Childs, who died from wounds sustained in the crossfire of a shooting near his elementary school last year. The group came up with a $4.2 million “legislative strategy” aimed at reducing gun violence called “Blueprint for a Safer Philadelphia.” Gun Court was one part of the blueprint strategy. State Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Phila., called that meeting of officials, and yesterday he announced the special court’s debut at a City Hall news conference. He was flanked by state Rep. John Perzel, R-Phila., Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson, District Attorney Lynne Abraham, U.S. Attorney Patrick Meehan, state Supreme Court Justice Sandra Schultz Newman and Common Pleas Administrative Judge James J. Fitzgerald III, who supervises the trial division. Abraham said Gun Court would allow law enforcement officers to identify people who have not yet committed serious crimes and study the ways in which they commit minor offenses. The theory is that by cracking down on minor crimes you chip away at the major crime trends, she said. “Gun Court is in session,” announced Abraham. The state Legislature recently enacted a law requiring a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence for those people convicted of a firearm offense committed in connection with a drug crime. The federal prosecutor’s office also hand picks firearm cases from Philadelphia and other counties to prosecute in federal court where the prison sentences for gun crimes are longer and mandatory minimums apply in some cases. They select individuals who have proved over time to be repeat or especially violent offenders, said Jack Stollsteimer, a federal prosecutor in the firearms unit. Said Stollsteimer, “It’s a significant bite.”

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