Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Chasing the dream?

Well, the police endorsement of Seth Williams for Philadelphia DA has indeed gotten him some attention, as evidenced by the Philadelphia Weekly feature story on his candidacy. Sadly, it doesn't add any new information to anything available elsewhere, but perhaps that's because most of a DA's activities are going to derive from its job-description, and thus there aren't that many arenas for philosophical divergence. So it boils down to the police department's interest in Williams' proposal (discussed previously here) to change the structure of the prosecutor's office to generate greater community accountability.
The FOP picked Williams based on his plan for community-based prosecution to handle the city's 70,000 annual criminal cases. Under this method, already employed in Atlanta and Chicago, assistant district attorneys handle cases geographically, by neighborhood or police district. They also work directly with residents, community groups and police to address specific quality-of-life issues. Williams says the streamlined approach means fewer cases tossed out of court.
Unfortunately, whether this will work is unknown -- or at least, nobody is reporting any data that shows concrete results -- so the endorsement seems to be mostly based on hope:
"Just that type of thinking alone, to do something different, is worth trying," says FOP chief of staff Eugene Blagmond, expressing concern for the high percentage of felony arrests dismissed from court. "Victims of crime should feel they can get justice. Police officers should feel if they arrest someone, that person will be brought to justice. Right now the system just doesn't work."
It's definitely bad that such a large percentage of cases are getting thrown out for lack of prosecutor preparation, but somehow I'd like more than a leap of faith on which to base my voting out a dedicated incumbent. Surely there's more information that we could have in the next six weeks!

Update: thanks to a note in the Chestnut Hill newsletter, I found that Williams has a formal document (PDF) on his campaign website that explains his proposal in more detail. Its arguments for the new structure seem compelling -- i.e., there are ways that it avoids personnel bottlenecks that make prepared prosecution less likely -- but again, not much in the way of data from other cities (a little anecdotal coverage). Still, worth checking out, if you're trying to weigh the options under discussion.

[Note: I spent a while looking for information on these programs, and found lots of chewy and thoughtful research papers, but the most thorough of them (this PDF) spell out the difficulties in figuring out how to measure the success of these programs (and on what fronts). So perhaps there's no problem with local coverage. It seems like an interesting area of foment in public policy and legal theory.]

Also, there's a discussion forum that might give many folks a chance to see Williams and Abraham in person, certainly answering questions even if not formally in a debate, tomorrow night. For event information, see this.


Anonymous Ray Murphy said...

Seth Williams is in my opinion clearly the most qualified candidate for DA. However, to respond to your concerns, check out this article in the Legal Intelligencer (REQUIRES SUBSCRIPTION: which talks about how community based prosecution is "working" in Brooklyn.

It is hard to imagine that this system which is so rooted in common sense and basic organizational principle, would not do better than the current system which loses over 50% of the cases at preliminary hearings alone.

Here's more from the online article:

In Brooklyn, District Attorney Charles Hynes's office has practiced community and vertical prosecution since 1990.

That was when the office began to organize the prosecution of felonies by teams - each assigned to five geographic regions that divide up the borough's 84 square miles and 23 precincts.

A region, or "zone," comprises two to three police precincts that are "contiguous with one another but heterogeneous in population and crime rate," explained Anne Swern, counsel to the district attorney.

The zones are named by color - red, blue, gray and so on. Judges in the zones hear only criminal cases from their zone's precincts. Swern said the system allows judges, as well as prosecutors and police officers, to develop an expertise in their zone community.

Instead of a police detective having to deal with one of several prosecutors over the course of a case, the detective now deals with one.

"It makes it much more like small town DA-ing," Swern said of the 370-lawyer office with a $70 million budget.

"You get to learn them and they get to learn us."

As for convincing Brooklyn judges to switch to a zone system - to which they added misdemeanors by 1995 - "it was easy," Swern recalled.

"They felt it was important to be responsive to the community," she said, noting the borough's 2.5 million residents. "They knew they would only be more responsive if they made Brooklyn smaller."

8:28 AM  

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