Philadelphia DA seeks better implementation of fugitive policy

District Attorney Seth Williams says the fugitive "policy we are pursuing is a good one, but we could have done a better job in implementing it."

Seth Williams

is Philadelphia's district attorney

After last Sunday's Inquirer article, I've been getting criticism for agreeing to discontinue a large number of inactive fugitive cases from the 1960s through the '90s. I agree with the criticism in some respects, and disagree in others.

The policy we are pursuing is a good one, but we could have done a better job in implementing it. We're fixing that, and moving ahead with a series of other measures that will finally address the problem of defendants who skip out on bail. It's a problem that's been festering for years, just one more broken part of a broken criminal-justice system. We can do better. We will do better. Here's how.

First, the vast majority of the withdrawn cases - more than 95 percent - were for less serious, nonviolent offenses committed between 10 and 40 years ago. These were cases, mostly for misdemeanor crimes such as prostitution and simple drug possession, in which the defendant failed to show up for court. When that happens, the court issues a "bench warrant" - a judicial warrant of arrest that is served if the defendant is picked up by police for a new crime. If the defendant stays out of trouble, however, the case for which the warrant was issued essentially becomes dormant, and the warrant just sits on the books.

By this year, the number of outstanding warrants had grown to almost 50,000. Many of the defendants were by now senior citizens, or even dead, and had a clean record in the ensuing years. Because there were so many warrants, from so long ago, for relatively minor crimes, authorities just threw up their hands. There was no practical way to sift out the few cases that might productively be pursued. The warrant process lost meaning. It was time to narrow them down, to make it real.

Second, I said that the warrants to be discontinued were for less serious, nonviolent offenses. Unfortunately, in a handful of cases, some genuinely serious charges slipped through and were mistakenly dismissed along with the others. We received information from the courts that miscoded these offenses, and we didn't catch the errors.

These dismissals are not permanent. We can and will ask the court to reinstate charges that should never have been withdrawn, and if there are any other cases in which victims or witnesses have information that can lead to effective prosecution, I urge them to contact us.

Third, the withdrawal of inactive cases is just one part of the strategy to get effective enforcement of fugitive warrants, and to get defendants into court, where they should have been to begin with.

Here are some of the other things we're doing:

From now on we will be able to place all our fugitive warrants into a national crime database, so that defendants who flee to other jurisdictions will be identified and returned. In the past, we couldn't do that with most cases. We couldn't flood the national system with so many outdated warrants for minor crimes.

This summer I formed a fugitive task force to coordinate our efforts with the court's fugitive unit, the U.S. Marshals, and the FBI. The task force will be led by a chief assistant district attorney, and I have detailed detective personnel to beef up the manpower available for the job. For the first time, we will be able to prioritize cases and focus on the most dangerous offenders. No more catch as catch can.

We have been making changes in court procedures to ensure that defendants will not be able to force a continuance of their cases simply by not showing up. Instead, they will be tried in absentia and, if convicted, sentence will be imposed. This is the message to fugitives: If you run, you won't get another shot in court when we find you. You will go directly to jail to serve your time.

For all of these efforts, we need and are receiving the leadership and cooperation of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille has taken a share of the criticism delivered last week. It is unjustified. Working together with Justice Seamus P. McCaffery, the chief justice has spearheaded a variety of reforms with one goal: to give victims, witnesses, and defendants their day in court, so that criminal cases in Philadelphia are decided on their merits, without intimidation or delay. It would have been easier to do nothing, as others have done nothing. I give the court credit for stepping up.

I remain committed to being smart on crime and not just talking tough. The process of reform will not be simple, and there may be mistakes along the way. But the result will be a fairer system and a safer city.


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