When justice gets lost

A DN editorial tackles the dropped-charges-against-fugitives issue:

Should the saying "Justice delayed is justice denied" be revised to read "Justice delayed is justice emptied from the file cabinets and tossed into a trash bin"?

That's arguably the case in Philadelphia, where nearly 20,000 criminal cases dating from before 1998 were trashed at the behest of Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald Castille and District Attorney Seth Williams over the past few months.

This week, the Inquirer reported that in an effort to clean up an overburdened system, thousands of cases and fugitive bench warrants for crimes including drug dealing, theft, prostitution, simple assault, burglary and other crimes have been purged.

There's no mistaking that the criminal-justice system is bogged down with cases whose trails have gone cold or were not pursued, with criminals long out of the picture. D.A. Williams has pledged to try to fix the broken system, and streamlining his operations is a natural move.

The D.A.'s budget is limited, and he says this will free up more resources to pursue current cases.

But Williams and Castille, who both pushed for this, could have done a better job communicating their strategy - to the victims of these crimes, as well as the public at large.

Imagine having been assaulted or robbed 20 years ago and finding out - not from the court, but from a newspaper - that, to those at the top of the criminal-justice system, your crime never happened. This mass purging may make sense from a work-flow standpoint, but it has larger implications to which Castille in particular seems blind.

For example, Castille was quoted as saying: "The system is clogged. You're never going to find these people. And if you do, are you going to prosecute them? The answer is no."

These are rather cavalier words from the top judge in the state, exhibiting a laissez-faire attitude about justice that we find shocking. (Castille also claimed, incredibly, that outstanding bench warrants may have served as a deterrent to criminals, actually acting as nonreporting probations.)

Also, we wonder about what actually was clogged: The names and details of 20-year-old cases are not hairballs clogging a drain; that information is sitting in files, no doubt as ignored today as they were two decades ago. There are costs incurred if the long-ago criminal is caught and needs to be extradited, but we can't help wondering how often that happens.

We also wonder about the methodology and review process for picking the crimes that were dropped. The D.A. says that none involved serious injury, but there surely have been cases of violence and even sexual offenses that were mistakenly dropped. It's all been an entirely too-secret process about which wholesale decisions were made with little explanation of rationale . . . and no recourse for victims.

This lack of transparency is damaging enough. But the real damage from the way this purging was executed is that it suggests that our criminal-justice system is arbitrary: If you commit a crime and manage to stay hidden long enough, you may get away with it.

One of the largest challenges that Williams faces is navigating the conflicts between the need for justice and the extraordinary costs that the process incurs. At some point, money saved may be well worth the deferral of justice, whether we're talking about dropped cases or early prison releases.

But this is a challenge - and a discussion- in which society as a whole should participate. Without that, we all become victims of the broken system.

Follow us on Twitter and review city services on our sister site, City Howl.