District attorney to launch community-prosecution program

With about nine months on the job, District Attorney Seth Williams has no trouble ticking off the problems which he inherited - and for which he believes he has a remedy.

The city has one of the worst gun-violence rates and the lowest conviction rate of the nation's 40 largest urban areas, and 59 percent of all felony cases get dismissed before trial because prosecutors aren't prepared, Williams said during a recent interview.

"Being a prosecutor in the 21st century isn't just about trying cases and asking for the maximum sentence," he said. "It's about preventing crime. It's about working with the community."

On Monday, Williams will launch one of his marquee campaign promises, a community-prosecution program designed to turn the city's crime numbers around while forging better relationships between the community and law enforcement.

It will mark the first time the majority of Philadelphia's assistant district attorneys will be assigned cases by geographic area.

Those six areas correspond to the Police Department's six detective divisions: northeast, central, northwest, southwest, east and south.

This, Williams said, will allow prosecutors to work more closely and efficiently with the same police officers, detectives, clergy members and community activists to better spot crime trends and prosecute criminals.

"I think community-based prosecution, community-based justice, addresses a lot of the problems we have in the criminal-justice system," Williams said.

"I grew up in a West Philly neighborhood where all some people remember is [former Police Commissioner and Mayor] Frank Rizzo with a nightstick in his cummerbund. They didn't always perceive that the cops were on their side."

The Criminal Justice Center is being reorganized to accommodate the system. The treatment of homicides, rapes and family-violence cases will not change, but the vast majority of the 75,000 cases handled each year - armed robberies, home invasions, attempted murders, etc. - will now flow through their community division. Each division will hear its criminal cases on a designated floor, and prosecutors will stay with their cases from start to finish.

Pairing prosecutors and police is not a new idea. Williams said he's following the lead of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who launched a community-prosecution plan in June 1996 for Washington, D.C., when he was that city's U.S. attorney battling drug wars.

Today, community-prosecution programs are operating across the country, in big and small counties and cities.

Former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham said her attempts to implement such a program were blocked by judges who were not on board.

"I think the best thing to do is to wait and see how it goes," said Abraham, now a partner at the law firm Archer & Greiner.

Greg Bucceroni, coordinator of Crime Victim Services/Youth Violence & Crime Reduction, a volunteer group that has advocated for victim and witness rights since 1977, said community prosecution makes a lot of sense.

"Everyone is on the same page," he said. "The assistant district attorney now makes a better connection with the victim and witnesses, and the police don't have to keep explaining the case. It puts a little bit more dialogue in place between the police, the ADA and the victim. It builds a better bond."

Defense attorney Joseph C. Santaguida, in his 46th year practicing law in the city, was less enthusiastic.

"I've been through about 10 different new systems. None of them seem to work. I don't know if this is going to be any better," he said in the hallway of the Criminal Justice Center.

"You still have to have the same police officers, the same judges, the same lawyers. If the judge is going to hear the same police officers over and over again, he's going to get some affinity for that officer; he's going to start liking him - maybe," Santaguida said.

Williams said he's hopeful that community prosecution will save millions in tax dollars by making the courts more efficient, reducing the amount of money paid in overtime when police officers are summoned to court.

"Again, it's not perfect," he said. "Nothing is perfect that we humans create.

"But having D.A.s assigned, not just to a courtroom, but having them assigned to handle only cases from a specific neighborhood makes them more invested in that community," Williams said.

Under the new system, all preliminary hearings in the city will be held at the Criminal Justice Center, which is on Filbert Street within sight of City Hall.

That means victims and witnesses will now have to make it to Center City for cases, as opposed to neighborhood courtrooms. But supporters of the change say that that inconvenience is outweighed by the better security at the justice center.

"When you're in the district courts, the people who are victims are sitting right next to the people who harassed them," said C.B. Kimmins, an anti-crime activist with Mantua Against Drugs.

At the justice center, members of the public must walk through airport-style metal detectors, courtrooms are guarded by deputy sheriffs and judges are primed to spot attempts of intimidation.

"At the CJC they'll still be in the same courtroom, but there is more distance and more protection," said Kimmins, who supports the new system.

The five community courtrooms in police stations around the city now will be used for lower-level misdemeanors, Williams said, such as bike thefts and small drug-possession cases.