Early-resolution court speeds Sonoma County criminal cases

More than 2,100 criminal defendants were arraigned the first six months of this year in a special felony court focused on clearing the docket and achieving what advocates call "same justice sooner."

Among those who made an appearance in Early Case Resolution court was Thomas Halloran, who was arrested in May while out on parole and came to the court because he could be facing a felony.

Prosecutors instead filed misdemeanor charges and sent him to a different courtroom to complete the justice process.

Judge Ken Gnoss, who's presided over the nearly three-year-old court since January, said the pace isn't compromising justice.

He said the most experienced lawyers are assigned to the court by the district attorney and public defender. And Gnoss a former prosecutor and police officer - signs off on every agreement.

"I'm not going to buy into a deal unless I think it's the right thing to do," Gnoss said. "I have to make sure people are accountable."

However, despite its popularity among judges and attorneys, the quick-turnaround venue has its critics.

Some defense lawyers said they feel pressured to plea before having all evidence before them. And at least one law enforcement source said the emphasis on clearance rates hurts public safety.

"We're not filing what we should in ECR," said the source, who requested anonymity because of dealings with other attorneys and judges in the court.

In the wake of the Halloran shooting, prosecutors discussed case handling in a regular staff meeting.

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