What's the cost of keeping a criminal charge in the system?

(Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)

Something we'd been wondering after reading Sunday's Inquirer story about the city dropping charges against 19,400 fugitives: We understand why Philadelphia wouldn't want to actively pursue these old cases. That would take time and resources away from chasing down people who law enforcement knows are committing crimes now. But does that necessarily mean that charges against them need to be dropped? Let's say you pick someone up for something today, and he still has his outstanding charge from 1976 -- now you can prosecute that. Does just keeping the charges on file actually cost anything -- does it actually clog the justice system, as Chief Justice Ronald Castille told the Inquirer?

Elmer Smith caught up with District Attorney Seth Williams and asked this very question:

How, I asked him, does not going after people that police weren't going after anyway help unclog the system?

"I hear you," Williams said, conceding the point. "But the state Supreme Court urged us to do it. I've got to be a team player on this."

Now maybe the clogging Castille is concerned about doesn't stem from just keeping names in the system; maybe it stems from catching people. If you catch someone and then prosecute and imprison him, that might contribute to clogging -- it eats up resources. But if that's the problem, it contradicts Castille's central defense of this purge:

"You're never going to find these people. And if you do, are you going to prosecute them? The answer is no."

We remain confused about this.

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