January 3, 2010
New York City is only 93 miles north of Philadelphia. In terms of crime, they are worlds apart. New York is preparing to celebrate its lowest number of homicides since the city starting keeping track in 1962. On the other hand, Philadelphia currently holds the distinction of being the most violent of the 10 largest cities in America.
In 2008, Philadelphia’s murder rate was 23 killings per 100,000 residents. New York’s murder rate was six per 100,000. During the first half of 2009, the murder rate dipped 10-percent nationwide and to Philadelphia’s credit the murder rate dipped a little better at 11-percent. Yet, Philadelphia’s rate of homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault continued to outpace every other major U.S. city.
Can Philadelphia look to New York’s model as an inspiration for reform? Philadelphia needs to look somewhere for help—there is much that needs fixed. Last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a four-part series providing a stunning exposé of Philadelphia’s 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;
• Philadelphia has about 47,000 fugitives walking the streets who have jumped bail.
Most startling is that for a quarter-century the Inquirer has been sounding the alarm about 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." Recently, the Inquirer reported, "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."
Philadelphia’s soon-to-be district attorney, Seth Williams, thinks that New York can be a model for change. The Inquirer recently reported that Williams talked admiringly of the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office, which has an entire unit dedicated to crime prevention. Williams said, "There has to be new ways to figure out what it means to be a D.A." He discussed the nontraditional ways of attacking crime, such as reaching out to community groups and schools.
New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg told the New York Times that he attributes declining crime rates to better race relations. He said, “Today, people understand that crime is a bad thing, but it is not an ethnic thing or race-based thing or a religious thing.”
That culture doesn’t seem to exist in Philadelphia. 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.
New York’s success can also be attributed to efficiency and innovation. The Times reported that Police Commissioner Raymond M. Kelly said, “success can be traced to eight years of programs like Operation Impact, which attacks stubborn crime plateaus, and the Real Time Crime Center, which feeds detectives instant intelligence.”
There again, efficiency appears to be sorely lacking in Philadelphia. 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, often resulting in dismissal of the charges. Philadelphia has nearly 47,000 fugitive bail-jumpers. According to the Inquirer, the bail jumpers owe Philadelphia $1 billion. The clerk of courts acknowledged that there are no computerized records of the debts, only a notation in 47,000 different files.
Just 93 miles up the road there are promising practices that could help Philadelphia reinvent its criminal justice system. However, is there the will to implement meaningful reform? The new D.A. told the Inquirer, "We have to change this.” That much is obvious; yet the ability to achieve substantive change in Philadelphia has been elusive.
Lauren Saene Key - 8/29/1996 - 11/8/2000
4 weeks ago