HomeOpinionTruth about Philadelphia homicides reveals path forward

Truth about Philadelphia homicides reveals path forward

We’re just two months into 2022 and Philadelphia has seen an abundance of homicides, with tragically more than 80 people dead. Such homicides are attributed to the city’s rising gun violence that has only increased throughout the pandemic and is expected to continue to rise. According to the Office of the Controller, 2021 saw a 13% rise in fatal shootings compared to 2020. Many have accused and chastised the district attorney’s office for implementing a progressive agenda that they feel has left Philadelphians less safe from criminal activity. However, a closer look at the facts provides a more accurate picture of the situation in Philadelphia.

Looking at statistics provided by the DA’s office regarding arrests made in cases of homicide-involved shootings, we can observe that compared to 2016-17, arrests were up 25% during the 2018-22 period. Arrests for non-fatal shootings, however, have decreased by 15% during the same period as compared to 2016-17. As for bail, it should be noted that most fatal shooting suspects are held without bail. However, when bail is put forward the amount of bail for homicide-involved shootings is up 22% compared to 2016-17, while non-fatal shootings were given bail amounts 39% less than years prior in 2018-22.

With these statistics in mind, two pictures emerge. First, we can determine that arrest rates and bail amounts for individuals accused of homicide by firearms have increased over the past few years. We also see bail amounts and arrest rates for non-fatal shootings that are subsequently lower than those of their fatal counterparts. Despite the simplicity of blaming the DA’s office for such failures, to place blame on the DA’s office alone detaches itself from the reality of the rules governing bail in Philadelphia.

According to article 1 section 14 of the Pennsylvania Constitution “All prisoners shall be bailable by sufficient sureties … ,” indicating that a suitable authority figure is mandated the responsibility of bail for individuals who come before the court. Considering Philadelphia’s autonomy under home rule, its judicial structure is set up differently than the rest of the commonwealth. We see this reflected in the state’s consolidated statutes relating to judiciary and judicial procedure, where Philadelphia’s municipal courts are detailed in Chapter 11 Article D subsection B. Under section 1123, relating to its jurisdiction and venue, general rule A5 gives the responsibility of setting and fixing bail to municipal court justices. Furthermore, in addition to the powers granted, it states that most of the court along with the president judge “ … have the power to appoint for four-year terms six arraignment court magistrates, to administer oaths and affirmations, preside at preliminary arraignments, assign counsel in certain cases, issue criminal complaints, fix bail … ,“ leaving individuals who are not elected public officials responsible for the bail limits on behalf of the elected judges. Pursuant to Philadelphia County rule 528, commonly referred to as the 10% rule, upon being granted bail an individual can put forward “ … a sum of money equal to ten percent (10%) of the full amount of the bail … “

The combination of un-elected arraignment court magistrates and current bail rules has led critics, including the DA himself, to conclude that the inexperience of many of these appointed magistrates, who often have little legal training, should not be handling certain cases as they cannot be held accountable to the public if the magistrate’s decisions don’t meet their expectations.

The gun violence epidemic in the city hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Department of Justice and the state’s attorney general’s office, as each has offered assistance to combat the increase in violence. According to the city, Philadelphia is part of the Community Violence Intervention Collaborative that has partnered with a non-governmental organization to help receive technical assistance while also meeting with other cities to collaborate. The Philadelphia Police Department has also been receiving support through the National Public Safety Partnership from which they receive extensive technical training in matters of gun violence while simultaneously developing cooperative networks of local, state and federal agencies that will over the next three years work to understand the challenges facing Philadelphia’s epidemic of crime. The PA AG’s office, in conjunction with the Philadelphia DA, have launched the Gun Violence Task Force that seeks to get illegal firearms off the streets. Statistics on the AG’s hub for the task force indicates that since its inception the task force has seized over 3,000 weapons and simultaneously launched a gun trace analytical platform from which the public can access and view statistics regarding guns used in criminal activity.

As we continue into 2022, I fear we will continue to see a persistent increase in shootings that will tragically accompany a rise in more fatalities by firearm. The statistics above clearly show that significant progress is being made in arresting individuals responsible for homicide by a firearm and holding them without bail, however, progress in ensuring individuals responsible for non-fatal shootings is falling short of expectations.

Low arrest rates and low bail have made it easier for these individuals to return to the streets where their recidivism can lead to more tragedy and crime being committed. To help combat low arrest rates, both the DOJ and the PA AG have offered support by training local authorities to better combat gun violence while simultaneously working with the DA to ensure lethal illegal firearms remain off the streets and out of the hands of criminals. Despite the support offered by outside resources, structural issues remain within Philadelphia’s Municipal Court system that allows non-elected individuals with little experience in the legal system to be appointed as a magistrate and carry out official duties of the courts. Combined with rule 528 that allows only 10% of bail to be posted for release, such ill-informed decisions regarding the amount of bail for violent crimes means violent criminals could potentially be released by the courts without a full understanding of the impact their release could have to the community at large.

With these factors in mind, we can understand the truth about homicides in Philadelphia and see a path forward to a solution to end the cycle of gun violence that is ravaging this city. ••

State Rep. Jason Dawkins represents the 179th Legislative District. He also serves as chairman of the Democratic Philadelphia Delegation of members in the House of Representatives.

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