March 15, 2019, Samantha Melamed - The Philadelphia Inquirer
In a courtroom at Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center on Thursday morning, a trial commissioner took the bench opposite an assistant district attorney and a public defender, and waited for the next detainee to appear on screen from the Detention Center, a county jail in Northeast Philadelphia.
Into the plastic seat slid Clifford Hill, 47, who was on probation for a four-year-old drunken-driving conviction but had failed to report to his probation officer since November 2016. The event was a preliminary hearing to determine whether there was cause to believe he had violated the terms of probation, which meant he could be detained in jail until he had a chance to go before a judge who would finally decide the matter in a violation-of-probation hearing.
“I was under the impression I was on non-reporting probation,” Hill explained. But he had completed a DUI class, submitted paperwork confirming that to his probation officer, and called to follow up. “I turned myself in when I learned I had an outstanding warrant on March 7.”
Then, even though it was clear he had violated by not reporting, the trial commissioner agreed to let Hill out of jail pending the resolution of his case.
Six months ago, Hill would not have had the opportunity to explain his situation at that preliminary hearing. Instead, the “hearing” would have been completed outside his presence and behind closed doors, by court staff and paralegals who reviewed the cases on paper only. Detainers were rarely lifted.