PHILADELPHIA – After years of feeling more than just a little nervous walking the mile and a half from the train station to my home, Philadelphia is making the streets safer. Seth Williams, Philadelphia’s District Attorney, is instituting a bold new program; Community-Based Prosecution. Set to commence on January 1 2011, it was first proposed in 2005 during Mr. Williams’s first DA election bid. Despite losing, Mr. Williams captured 45 percent of the vote, and was appointed Inspector General where he investigated corruption, fraud, and employee misconduct among municipal workers. After winning the District Attorney election in November of 2009, newly appointed District Attorney Williams began the work of implementing the original program.
Having been “part” of the Justice System years ago in both Philadelphia and New York (where I grew up), it is appalling the differences that exist between the two “greatest” cities respective criminal justice systems. Simply allowing a criminal to go free-for any reason-is wrong, but for it to happen because a lack or organization and caring is a sin. New York may not be perfect, but they get the job done. My adopted city of Philadelphia is much worse off. Violent offenders let go because Philadelphia cannot protect the victims who are afraid to make statements or the neighbors witnessing the crimes are too afraid to talk; this is just wrong and Philadelphia needs a change. DA Williams promised that change would come-and it finally is.
Major municipalities assign cases to different District Attorney office units for each stage of the case and is called the “horizontal model.” Used to manage the high volumes of crime that major municipalities like Philadelphia have to manage, it helps to control costs. The horizontal model makes prosecution less effective with victims and witnesses dealing with different prosecutors at different stages of the case. Alternatively, the proposed community based, “vertical model” will assign cases to prosecutors that become attached to the local community, handling cases from initial arrest to final prosecution and sentencing. The intention is to drastically streamline the criminal justice process and increase conviction rates.
The NY Example
A similar program has been in use in New York since 1975-resulting in an increase in conviction rates, a more organized justice system, and more community involvement-something Philadelphia desperately needs. Incorporating the Zone concept to increase community awareness and involvement by dividing Philadelphia into six prosecutorial zones coinciding with the police detective zones, the program makes organization easier and allows for better protection of witnesses and victims of crimes.
The Criminal Justice Center, located in Center City, will be remodeled and assigned Zone floors that include detectives, prosecuting attorneys, judges, and case management of their jurisdiction. DA Williams cites that 52 percent of felony cases are dropped at the municipal court stage due to “lack of prosecution,” which merely means lack of organization and caring to most of us. This lack of prosecution has allowed countless numbers of criminals to go free and lack of protection has done far worse.
As a resident of Philadelphia for 13 years and voting for Mr. Williams in 2003, I feel the streets may finally be safer. With difficulties Philadelphians face while trying to enjoy a night in their backyard-gunshots heard in the ally, drug buys on the corner and the overall criminal element freely walking around-families are forced to change their lifestyle to revolve around criminals to feel safe. Philadelphia is finally taking much-needed initiative concerning the residents’ safety is a step in the right direction.
Dylan Purcell, “Zone Court Model Winner in Manhattan,” The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Community Based Prosecution,” Friends of Seth Williams
“Where Seth Stands,” Friends of Seth Williams