A community effort

The dis­trict at­tor­ney’s ef­forts to bring justice closer to home is get­ting good re­views, for now.

Dis­trict At­tor­ney Seth Wil­li­ams had some lofty goals last Novem­ber when, in co­oper­a­tion with Phil­adelphia’s crim­in­al courts, he em­barked upon his Com­munity Pro­sec­u­tion pro­gram.

Wil­li­ams said he wanted to make it more con­veni­ent and com­fort­able for crime vic­tims, wit­nesses and in­vest­ig­at­ors to testi­fy in court, thereby re­du­cing case delays and set­ting the stage for more suc­cess­ful pro­sec­u­tions.

The DA also wanted his as­sist­ant pro­sec­utors to work more closely with po­lice and com­munity lead­ers in neigh­bor­hoods throughout the city, to bet­ter fa­mil­i­ar­ize them­selves with pre­vail­ing crime trends and par­tic­u­larly prob­lem­at­ic crim­in­als in the neigh­bor­hoods.

And Wil­li­ams’ so-called ver­tic­al pro­sec­u­tion mod­el, in which in­di­vidu­al pro­sec­utors handle spe­cif­ic cases from start to fin­ish in­stead of passing them off to one an­oth­er at each step of the pro­cess, was also meant to im­prove his as­sist­ants’ fa­mili­ar­ity with their case­loads and their con­vic­tion rates.

Nearly a year in­to the pro­gram, the jury’s still out on wheth­er Wil­li­ams is achiev­ing his goals, stat­ist­ic­ally speak­ing. But based on his own an­ec­dot­al evid­ence, the chief pro­sec­utor proudly boasts that his ef­forts have con­trib­uted to a dra­mat­ic­ally im­proved cli­mate with­in the crim­in­al justice sys­tem.

Mean­while, stat­ist­ics avail­able from the courts and the city’s po­lice de­part­ment sug­gest that Wil­li­ams is right.

“Not only are more cases be­ing held for court, more cases are be­ing handled more quickly,” Wil­li­ams said in a re­cent in­ter­view with the North­east Times.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­port is­sued by the Pennsylvania Su­preme Court last month, 29 per­cent of all felony cases brought in­to the city’s court sys­tem from Janu­ary through May were dis­missed or with­drawn at the Mu­ni­cip­al Court level, while 57 per­cent were re­manded to Com­mon Pleas Court for pos­sible tri­al.

The with­draw­al/dis­missal rate rep­res­en­ted a 6-per­cent im­prove­ment from 2010 and a 13-per­cent im­prove­ment from 2007 levels, while the “held for court” rate rep­res­en­ted a 4-per­cent in­crease over 2010 and an 8.5-per­cent in­crease over 2007.

As for swifter case pro­gress, the Su­preme Court ana­lys­is re­vealed that 48 per­cent of all felony cases filed from May to Decem­ber 2010 reached a Mu­ni­cip­al Court dis­pos­i­tion with­in 60 days of fil­ing, com­pared to just 43 per­cent for all of 2009.

Mean­while, 27 per­cent of the same cases in 2010 were re­solved at the first court list­ing, com­pared to just 16 per­cent of the 2009 cases.

“There is in­form­a­tion in there in­dic­at­ing that pro­gress is be­ing made in more cases be­ing heard on their mer­its,” said Dav­id Was­son, court ad­min­is­trat­or for Phil­adelphia’s Mu­ni­cip­al and Com­mon Pleas courts, which are known col­lect­ively as the First Ju­di­cial Dis­trict of Pennsylvania and which sup­plied the data for the Su­preme Court re­port.

Oth­er meas­ur­ing sticks have yet to be­come avail­able.

“The con­vic­tion num­bers haven’t been run yet. We’re work­ing on those now,” Was­son said.

Mean­while, Wil­li­ams has be­gun to de­vel­op his own stat­ist­ic­al pro­to­cols. Thanks to a grant from the Bur­eau of Justice As­sist­ance, a branch of the U.S. De­part­ment of Justice, the DA has hired a new in­form­a­tion tech­no­logy ex­pert, a fin­an­cial ex­pert and a crim­in­o­lo­gist.

“We’re as­sess­ing what data can be gathered through ex­ist­ing in­form­a­tion tech­no­logy,” Wil­li­ams said.

Con­crete res­ults from the pro­ject are months away. Even if his num­bers end up echo­ing those sup­plied by the courts, Wil­li­ams couldn’t rightly take sole cred­it for the im­prove­ments.

The DA’s Com­munity Pro­sec­u­tion is only one con­trib­ut­ing pro­gram in a much broad­er court re­form ini­ti­at­ive launched in Janu­ary 2010 by the Su­preme Court un­der the dir­ec­tion of Chief Justice Ron Castille and Justice Seamus Mc­Caf­fery, who are North­east Phil­adelphia res­id­ents.

The justices cred­ited a series of in­vest­ig­at­ive news art­icles pub­lished by the Phil­adelphia In­quirer in Decem­ber 2009 for spark­ing the ini­ti­at­ive. The art­icles ex­posed the Phil­adelphia court sys­tem for its high felony case with­draw­al and dis­missal rates, its poor con­vic­tion rates, its pre­val­ence of wit­ness in­tim­id­a­tion and its epi­dem­ic of no-show de­fend­ants.

The high court’s broad-based ini­ti­at­ive has tar­geted re­forms in vari­ous key areas in­clud­ing case pro­cessing at the Mu­ni­cip­al Court level, the bail and bench war­rant sys­tem and anti-wit­ness in­tim­id­a­tion ef­forts, along with in­form­a­tion pro­cessing and shar­ing. All are de­tailed in the afore­men­tioned Ju­ly re­port.

The re­port does ac­know­ledge Wil­li­ams’ spe­cif­ic con­tri­bu­tions to the ini­ti­at­ive, however. The ba­sic premise of Com­munity Pro­sec­u­tion is re­or­gan­iz­ing the DA’s of­fice in­to geo­graphy-based units that mir­ror the city’s six po­lice patrol di­vi­sions. Ninety of the city’s 318 as­sist­ant DAs have been as­signed to those six ter­rit­or­ies. The North­east Di­vi­sion has 13 of them, in­clud­ing di­vi­sion chief Mark Gilson and as­sist­ant chief Melissa Fran­cis.

Cer­tain types of cases in­clud­ing murders and sexu­al as­saults still fall in­to the pur­view of spe­cial­ized units with­in the DA’s of­fice. But whenev­er po­lice ar­rest someone for rob­bery, burg­lary, as­sault or a mul­ti­tude of oth­er crimes in the North­east and the DA’s char­ging unit ap­proves the charges, a North­east-based pro­sec­utor im­me­di­ately gets the case.

Like­wise, all North­east cases are heard in the same place, the 10th floor of the city’s Crim­in­al Justice Cen­ter, at 1301 Fil­bert St. The First Ju­di­cial Dis­trict calls the ar­range­ment its Zone Court sys­tem. Four des­ig­nated Mu­ni­cip­al Court judges hear all pre­lim­in­ary hear­ings for North­east Di­vi­sion cases.

Un­der the pre­vi­ous sys­tem, po­lice sta­tions throughout the city, in­clud­ing the 8th dis­trict in the Far North­east, played host to many of the pre­lim­in­ary hear­ings, which fea­tured a ro­tat­ing lineup of judges and as­sist­ant DAs.

“Cent­ral­iz­ing vic­tims, wit­nesses, po­lice and pro­sec­utors on the same floor of the CJC is be­lieved to re­duce wit­ness in­tim­id­a­tion, con­tinu­ances caused by un­avail­ab­il­ity of po­lice wit­nesses and po­lice over­time costs,” the Su­preme Court re­port stated.

The city’s po­lice de­part­ment has already be­gun to ob­serve some im­pact on its bot­tom line.

Ac­cord­ing to In­spect­or Chris­toph­er Flacco, com­mand­er of the stand­ards and ac­count­ab­il­ity di­vi­sion, the po­lice de­part­ment saw a 19.4-per­cent de­cline in the num­ber of court no­tices is­sued to its of­ficers in the first six months of 2011.

The court sends a no­tice to the po­lice de­part­ment every time a po­lice of­ficer has to show up for a case, re­gard­less of wheth­er they end up ac­tu­ally testi­fy­ing that day. From Janu­ary through June this year, 168,002 no­tices were is­sued, com­pared to 208,577 for the same peri­od in 2010.

“We’re get­ting less con­tinu­ances, so of­ficers are be­ing taken off the street less,” Flacco said.

An­oth­er bo­nus from the more-cent­ral­ized court sys­tem has been a re­duc­tion in the time of­ficers spend trav­el­ing to and from court, the in­spect­or ad­ded. Un­der the old sys­tem, a po­lice of­ficer might have to drive to Academy and Red Li­on roads for a pre­lim­in­ary hear­ing, then down to the Crim­in­al Justice Cen­ter for a tri­al all in the same day.

If the of­ficer was on duty at the time, he ob­vi­ously was un­avail­able for patrol or in­vest­ig­at­ive work. And if he was off duty, the long com­mute placed a great­er bur­den on the de­part­ment’s over­time budget.

The po­lice de­part­ment has spent about $19 mil­lion on over­time for each of the last two years, Flacco said. A “healthy, healthy chunk,” but not more than half of it is court-re­lated.

Des­pite the large re­duc­tion in the num­ber of court no­tices this year, Flacco doesn’t an­ti­cip­ate a re­duc­tion in court-re­lated over­time spend­ing be­cause of a 4-per­cent raise of­ficers got this year in their new labor con­tract. In fact, court over­time spend­ing is up by about 1 per­cent, he said.

Non­ethe­less, court hours are down, so the de­part­ment is sav­ing over­time money it likely would have spent were it not for the court sys­tem re­forms.

In­ter­est­ingly, in the two busiest po­lice dis­tricts of the North­east, com­mand­ers say they haven’t seen a great im­pact in terms of ad­di­tion­al man­power avail­able to them on a day-to-day basis.

“I don’t see any change. There may be some days where court may be a little more of a bur­den, but there are oth­er re­sources we have [to pull from], like the 5-squad,” said Capt. Frank Bach­may­er of the 15th dis­trict.

“I deal with what we have at that mo­ment. If any is­sues come up, I work with the [di­vi­sion] in­spect­or, but I’m usu­ally hold­ing my own on day work.”

“From my per­spect­ive, wheth­er my of­ficers are at Red Li­on and Academy or at the Crim­in­al Justice Cen­ter, they’re un­avail­able to us,” said Capt. Mike Mc­Car­rick of the 2nd dis­trict, who ac­know­ledged that the re­duced travel times between hear­ing sites have presen­ted a bit of re­lief.

“We get on an av­er­age day maybe forty court no­tices. … We pre­pare in ad­vance, but so many oth­er things have an im­pact on [man­power], like of­ficers who are sick or hurt.”

Mc­Car­rick has con­cluded that of­ficers will al­ways spend a large amount of time in court re­gard­less of how ef­fi­ciently the courts op­er­ate. To an of­ficer, ad­di­tion­al time on the street only means he’s avail­able for more ar­rests, which ul­ti­mately will lead him back in­to court.

Mc­Car­rick and Fran­cis, the as­sist­ant chief in the DA’s North­east Di­vi­sion, agree on the pos­it­ive in­flu­ence of an­oth­er as­pect of Com­munity Pro­sec­u­tion. They say that com­mu­nic­a­tion and in­form­a­tion shar­ing is as strong as ever among North­east-based po­lice, pro­sec­utors and com­munity lead­ers.

“I go to a lot of [com­munity] meet­ings, and every meet­ing I go to, I give out my card and my of­fice num­ber,” Fran­cis said. “I say, ‘If you have a prob­lem, let me know.’ ”

“It’s a good thing. [Pro­sec­utors] are start­ing to see the same things that we see,” Mc­Car­rick said. “We see the same of­fend­ers, over and over again. The rep­res­ent­at­ives for the DA’s of­fice in our area are go­ing to the meet­ings and [res­id­ents] have more ac­cess than they did in the past.” ••

Re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or bkenny@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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