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A community effort

District Attorney Seth Williams had some lofty goals last November when, in cooperation with Philadelphia’s criminal courts, he embarked upon his Community Prosecution program.

Williams said he wanted to make it more convenient and comfortable for crime victims, witnesses and investigators to testify in court, thereby reducing case delays and setting the stage for more successful prosecutions.

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The DA also wanted his assistant prosecutors to work more closely with police and community leaders in neighborhoods throughout the city, to better familiarize themselves with prevailing crime trends and particularly problematic criminals in the neighborhoods.

And Williams’ so-called vertical prosecution model, in which individual prosecutors handle specific cases from start to finish instead of passing them off to one another at each step of the process, was also meant to improve his assistants’ familiarity with their caseloads and their conviction rates.

Nearly a year into the program, the jury’s still out on whether Williams is achieving his goals, statistically speaking. But based on his own anecdotal evidence, the chief prosecutor proudly boasts that his efforts have contributed to a dramatically improved climate within the criminal justice system.

Meanwhile, statistics available from the courts and the city’s police department suggest that Williams is right.

“Not only are more cases being held for court, more cases are being handled more quickly,” Williams said in a recent interview with the Northeast Times.

According to a report issued by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court last month, 29 percent of all felony cases brought into the city’s court system from January through May were dismissed or withdrawn at the Municipal Court level, while 57 percent were remanded to Common Pleas Court for possible trial.

The withdrawal/dismissal rate represented a 6-percent improvement from 2010 and a 13-percent improvement from 2007 levels, while the “held for court” rate represented a 4-percent increase over 2010 and an 8.5-percent increase over 2007.

As for swifter case progress, the Supreme Court analysis revealed that 48 percent of all felony cases filed from May to December 2010 reached a Municipal Court disposition within 60 days of filing, compared to just 43 percent for all of 2009.

Meanwhile, 27 percent of the same cases in 2010 were resolved at the first court listing, compared to just 16 percent of the 2009 cases.

“There is information in there indicating that progress is being made in more cases being heard on their merits,” said David Wasson, court administrator for Philadelphia’s Municipal and Common Pleas courts, which are known collectively as the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania and which supplied the data for the Supreme Court report.

Other measuring sticks have yet to become available.

“The conviction numbers haven’t been run yet. We’re working on those now,” Wasson said.

Meanwhile, Williams has begun to develop his own statistical protocols. Thanks to a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice, the DA has hired a new information technology expert, a financial expert and a criminologist.

“We’re assessing what data can be gathered through existing information technology,” Williams said.

Concrete results from the project are months away. Even if his numbers end up echoing those supplied by the courts, Williams couldn’t rightly take sole credit for the improvements.

The DA’s Community Prosecution is only one contributing program in a much broader court reform initiative launched in January 2010 by the Supreme Court under the direction of Chief Justice Ron Castille and Justice Seamus McCaffery, who are Northeast Philadelphia residents.

The justices credited a series of investigative news articles published by the Philadelphia Inquirer in December 2009 for sparking the initiative. The articles exposed the Philadelphia court system for its high felony case withdrawal and dismissal rates, its poor conviction rates, its prevalence of witness intimidation and its epidemic of no-show defendants.

The high court’s broad-based initiative has targeted reforms in various key areas including case processing at the Municipal Court level, the bail and bench warrant system and anti-witness intimidation efforts, along with information processing and sharing. All are detailed in the aforementioned July report.

The report does acknowledge Williams’ specific contributions to the initiative, however. The basic premise of Community Prosecution is reorganizing the DA’s office into geography-based units that mirror the city’s six police patrol divisions. Ninety of the city’s 318 assistant DAs have been assigned to those six territories. The Northeast Division has 13 of them, including division chief Mark Gilson and assistant chief Melissa Francis.

Certain types of cases including murders and sexual assaults still fall into the purview of specialized units within the DA’s office. But whenever police arrest someone for robbery, burglary, assault or a multitude of other crimes in the Northeast and the DA’s charging unit approves the charges, a Northeast-based prosecutor immediately gets the case.

Likewise, all Northeast cases are heard in the same place, the 10th floor of the city’s Criminal Justice Center, at 1301 Filbert St. The First Judicial District calls the arrangement its Zone Court system. Four designated Municipal Court judges hear all preliminary hearings for Northeast Division cases.

Under the previous system, police stations throughout the city, including the 8th district in the Far Northeast, played host to many of the preliminary hearings, which featured a rotating lineup of judges and assistant DAs.

“Centralizing victims, witnesses, police and prosecutors on the same floor of the CJC is believed to reduce witness intimidation, continuances caused by unavailability of police witnesses and police overtime costs,” the Supreme Court report stated.

The city’s police department has already begun to observe some impact on its bottom line.

According to Inspector Christopher Flacco, commander of the standards and accountability division, the police department saw a 19.4-percent decline in the number of court notices issued to its officers in the first six months of 2011.

The court sends a notice to the police department every time a police officer has to show up for a case, regardless of whether they end up actually testifying that day. From January through June this year, 168,002 notices were issued, compared to 208,577 for the same period in 2010.

“We’re getting less continuances, so officers are being taken off the street less,” Flacco said.

Another bonus from the more-centralized court system has been a reduction in the time officers spend traveling to and from court, the inspector added. Under the old system, a police officer might have to drive to Academy and Red Lion roads for a preliminary hearing, then down to the Criminal Justice Center for a trial all in the same day.

If the officer was on duty at the time, he obviously was unavailable for patrol or investigative work. And if he was off duty, the long commute placed a greater burden on the department’s overtime budget.

The police department has spent about $19 million on overtime for each of the last two years, Flacco said. A “healthy, healthy chunk,” but not more than half of it is court-related.

Despite the large reduction in the number of court notices this year, Flacco doesn’t anticipate a reduction in court-related overtime spending because of a 4-percent raise officers got this year in their new labor contract. In fact, court overtime spending is up by about 1 percent, he said.

Nonetheless, court hours are down, so the department is saving overtime money it likely would have spent were it not for the court system reforms.

Interestingly, in the two busiest police districts of the Northeast, commanders say they haven’t seen a great impact in terms of additional manpower available to them on a day-to-day basis.

“I don’t see any change. There may be some days where court may be a little more of a burden, but there are other resources we have [to pull from], like the 5-squad,” said Capt. Frank Bachmayer of the 15th district.

“I deal with what we have at that moment. If any issues come up, I work with the [division] inspector, but I’m usually holding my own on day work.”

“From my perspective, whether my officers are at Red Lion and Academy or at the Criminal Justice Center, they’re unavailable to us,” said Capt. Mike McCarrick of the 2nd district, who acknowledged that the reduced travel times between hearing sites have presented a bit of relief.

“We get on an average day maybe forty court notices. … We prepare in advance, but so many other things have an impact on [manpower], like officers who are sick or hurt.”

McCarrick has concluded that officers will always spend a large amount of time in court regardless of how efficiently the courts operate. To an officer, additional time on the street only means he’s available for more arrests, which ultimately will lead him back into court.

McCarrick and Francis, the assistant chief in the DA’s Northeast Division, agree on the positive influence of another aspect of Community Prosecution. They say that communication and information sharing is as strong as ever among Northeast-based police, prosecutors and community leaders.

“I go to a lot of [community] meetings, and every meeting I go to, I give out my card and my office number,” Francis said. “I say, ‘If you have a problem, let me know.’ ”

“It’s a good thing. [Prosecutors] are starting to see the same things that we see,” McCarrick said. “We see the same offenders, over and over again. The representatives for the DA’s office in our area are going to the meetings and [residents] have more access than they did in the past.” ••

Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or bkenny@bsmphilly.com

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