Smart Thinking In Philadelphia's D.A.'s Office

There may be hope after all, at least in Philadelphia. R. Seth Williams, the city's new district attorney, is doing the unthinkable: he's trying to get smart on crime. In Williams' mind that means something more than throwing the book at everyone who makes a mistake. It means making an intelligent assessment of what is worth prosecuting. Would that there were more prosecutors like Williams.

It is too often the case that police and prosecutors disclaim responsibility for their actions: If they detect what they think is a violation of the law, arrest is automatic. It is then left to the criminal justice system to dispose of the new case on terms it deems just. After all, it is lawmakers who define what is and is not a crime.

This is the coward's way out of really reading the separation of powers clause extant in virtually every state constitution. Good government is not the stuff of mindless automatons, each marching lock step to the silent rhythm of Big Brother's respirator. We ask homeowners to "call before you dig" as to hidden power lines on or near their property; is it really too much to ask prosecutors to think before they prosecute?

Lawmakers are often detached from the consequences of the decisions they make. It is easy to posture deep in a legislative cocoon about the need to get tough on crime. Each year, there are new crimes, new mandatory minimums, new bandages to slap on the gaping wounds of a society rubbed raw by an economy that doesn't work and a melting pot boiling over with rage. We expect too much of the courts when we ask the criminal justice system to dispose of every errant soul detected on law enforcement's radar.

In Philadelphia, Williams is traveling to schools, talking to kids about the importance of hope, of good grades, graduation and taking control of a future that too often looks frightening and foreboding. What's more, he is directing his office to plead out lesser offenses such as the possession of marijuana, a cocktail rolled in cigarette papers, from jail time to community service.

Williams knows he has bigger issues in the city of brotherly love. The city has the highest per capita murder rate of any city in the nation. Its conviction rate for these offenses is at the bottom of anyone's list of statistics. Williams hopes that by focusing on what matters, city residents will not only feel safer, but also be safer.

Of course, Williams has critics. The former D.A., Lynne Abraham, thinks Williams is a little too cozy, even if unintentionally, with the Mexican drug cartels, who will benefit from the city's new more lenient marijuana prosecution policy. That's just silly. The war on drugs is a resounding failure. The city tries as many as 4,000 marijuana cases a year. Disposing of these cases with something less than trial will help the city more intelligently focus scarce criminal justice resources.

I like what I am reading about Williams. He's making intelligent decisions as a prosecutor, a feat all too rare in the nation's courthouses. Keep an eye on this prosecutor. He's going places. I hope his message of intelligence use of prosecutorial discretion spreads like wildfire.

Comments: (2)

  • While this is the first I’ve heard about the new c...
    While this is the first I’ve heard about the new changes being instituted in Philadelphia, I have to agree that these changes are both welcome and long overdue. Lynne Abraham fostered a culture of prosecution at any cost during her long tenure there in which the gung-ho prosecutors were quickly advanced and more reasonable/sane prosecutors were left behind to bide their time in misdemeanor court. It was therefore a welcome surprise to come to D.C. to find that the prosecutors here are sometimes just as eager to throw out a case as the criminal defense attorney is. Why clog up the court system with first-time offenders of minor “crimes”?
    Posted on June 21, 2010 at 6:38 am by Jamison
  • 'Why clog up the court system with first-time offe...
    'Why clog up the court system with first-time offenders of minor “crimes”?' Why indeed? Or, instances where crimes were in fact committed by no one,... if a proper investigation, review and evaluation were to have been properly done? Why clog up the court system with cases where the major crimes are in fact committed by the prosecutor's office and/or law enforcement itself? Inquiring Minds want to know!
    The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal is prominently displayed on my bookshelf (re: the incompetent and corrupt Philadelphia police acting in consort with a similarly disposed DAs office.) This is must reading for anyone even remotely interested in Philly, the city. Very depressing stuff.
    Hopefully, Philadelphia will turn a corner with its new DA, Seth Williams. The Doriss family has a strong historical connection to this city where none of us live any longer, although I did try to start a business there in '98.
    Posted on June 21, 2010 at 7:30 am by William Doriss

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