Thursday, December 24, 2009

Philadelphia: No Justice in Criminal Justice System

Last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a four-part series providing a stunning expose of the Philadelphia criminal justice system. Some of the most disturbing findings were:

*Only one in 10 people charged with gun assaults are convicted of that charge;
*Nationally, big city prosecutors win felony convictions in 50-percent of violent cases. In Philadelphia prosecutors win 20-percent;
*For three consecutive years, Philadelphia has had the highest violent crime rate of the nation's ten largest cities;
*Philadelphia has about 47,000 fugitives who have jumped bail.

Most startling is that for a quarter-century the Inquirer has been reporting about the inadequacy of Philadelphia's criminal justice system. In 1973, the Inquirer reported, "It is a system that really is no system at all and it has very little to do with justice." In 1986, they reported, "In a two-year investigation of Philadelphia's courts, the Inquirer has found a system that often delivers anything but justice." Now the Inquirer reports, "It is a system that all too often fails to punish violent criminals, fails to protect witnesses, fails to catch thousands of fugitives, fails to decide cases on their merits-fails to provide justice."

The series raised even more concerns. The system is rife with witness intimidation. Over 300 people a year are charged with witness intimidation and 13 witnesses, or their family members, have been murdered in the last decade. Then there is the embarrassing "bring-down problem." Until some recent changes, county officials had failed to bring defendants from county lock-up to the courtroom in one in four cases.

The future for Philadelphia is less than bright. For instance, if the city was successful in rounding up the nearly 47,000 fugitives walking city streets, the local jail would be filled five times over. For Philadelphia the bail jumping problem can't be solved. There are some more promising possibilities for some of Philadelphia's other criminal justice problems. However, is there the will to see those changes through?

Philadelphia will have a new district attorney in January. Seth Williams told the Inquirer, "We have to change this." Time will tell, and it appears that the Inquirer won't soon let Williams forget.

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