Public Policy’s Influence on the Criminal Justice System

a seminar discussion presented by the Journal of Law & Public Affairs

February 19, 2016


Shawn Donovan, Associate Editor

Our guest today was District Attorney Seth Williams, who joined us to speak about public policy’s influence on the criminal justice system. Williams began by discussing his biography. He received his college degree from Penn State and graduated from Georgetown University Law Center in 1992 as a Public Interest Scholar. He is the first African American DA in both Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

While discussing his upbringing, he mentioned that his father—by engaging with the local community and helping at-risk youths by running a recreation center—did more to curb crime than he ever will as DA. He stated that the most common characteristic among people arrested in Philadelphia is that they dropped out of high school, and he believes that truancy is the biggest obstacle to preventing crime. While attending college at Penn State, he marched 102 miles to oppose South African apartheid. He highlighted how today apartheid is unquestionably wrong, but while he was in college, it was a more controversial and contested issue.

During his time at Georgetown University Law Center, Williams tried to expose himself to as many areas as possible. He worked for a firm his first summer and decided that firm work was not something that he wished to pursue further. In particular, he noticed that none of the department heads began their careers as associates with the firm, and this lack of upward mobility bothered him. He joined the criminal justice clinic during his third year at Georgetown and subsequently decided that he was not interested in becoming a public defender. He recognized that the prosecutor had all of the power in the courtroom, and he decided that he wanted to be a champion of the victims.

Williams was an Assistant District Attorney in Philadelphia for ten years. He attributes riding SEPTA to and from work every day with learning how to interact with different people and how to engage his surroundings. During his talk, he discussed how 90% of child abusers are known to the family, something that is often ignored. While an ADA, he created a unit called the Repeat Offenders Unit, which focused on lowering the recidivism rate in Philadelphia. He attributes this position with making him think about what the DA Office at-large should focus on. He decided that the criminal justice system was broken, and the horizontal manner (i.e., each prosecutor handling a single piece of a case) in which the Office handled cases was ineffective. He wanted to organize prosecutions geographically, allowing each division to focus on matters impacting local communities.

Williams believes there is a changing paradigm in what it means to be a prosecutor. Whereas the old regime was about enhanced jail time and sounding “tough,” he believes that his number one role as DA is to prevent crime, with his second being to prevent recidivism. On this note, he pointed out that most families prefer that their loves ones not be harmed in the first place, rather than have the DA Office forcefully prosecute the case in the crime’s aftermath. Under his predecessor, Philadelphia led the nation in handgun violence, and 59% of all cases were being discharged at the preliminary hearing phase. As part of his reorganization plan, he wanted to focus his attention on localizing prosecution. Philadelphia is now divided into six different geographic regions, and different prosecutors are responsible for overseeing each community. As DA, Williams scrutinizes aggregated data and uses technology to highlight the regions in which crimes most often occur within the City. He also looks to what prosecutors in other cities are implementing and considers how those processes might benefit Philadelphia.

Williams also highlighted how our prosecution system is much different from the historical ways in which cases were prosecuted in other countries. In the past, a victim would have to pay for their own prosecuting attorney, whereas now a crime against one person is framed as a crime against the community. Additionally, most systems in other countries remain considerably more centralized, which he believes is largely ineffective and impacted his plan to reorganize the Philadelphia DA’s Office.

Different Perspective

Camilla Ihenetu, Associate Editor

I enjoyed hearing Seth Williams’ perspective on Friday, and favored particularly his thoughts on crime prevention. I felt his comment about his father encapsulated the tone of his presentation perfectly: despite the fact that he (Mr. Williams) is Philadelphia’s district attorney, he believed that his father would do more to prevent crime than he ever would; it is the time that his father invested in mentoring and helping to educate young people that really counted.

I fully agree that we as a society would do a service to our communities and to our children by spending quality time with them. And not just parents have that responsibility. Everyone that is in a position (and most people are) to counsel youth should seize that opportunity. Mr. Williams provided a statistic that was most telling. He said, “that for every dollar spent on childhood education, we save $700 dollars on jail costs.” He further commented that the number one thing that people who get arrested in Philadelphia have in common is that they dropped out. Half of ninth grade students finish school and while overall dropout rates seem to be on the decline, a quarter of Philadelphia’s public school students never graduate. Mr. Williams mentioned that dropouts are eight times more likely to go to prison and are twenty times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime. There is a clear need to find appropriate mechanisms to combat truancy.

Considering that in Philadelphia last year, taxpayers spent nearly $290 million to imprison residents sentenced from just 11 of the city’s neighborhoods; and while these neighborhoods are home to just over one-quarter of the city’s population, they account for more than half of the over $500 million dollars spent to imprison people sentenced in all of Philadelphia. These statistics combined with the fact that of the city’s 35 lower performing schools, 23 (66 percent) are clustered in or very near neighborhoods with the highest rates of incarceration – where the biggest taxpayer investment is being made towards incarceration shows the need to refocus resources. One can contrast that data with of Philadelphia’s 28 higher performing schools, 21 (75 percent) are in neighborhoods with the lowest rates of incarceration. These numbers alone support Mr. Williams’s comments – the best way to prevent crime and keep our communities safe is to provide children with quality instruction, support, and guidance early on in their academic careers. That includes formal schooling and more informal mentoring.

One final point that I believe was rather interesting is the one that Mr. Williams made regarding sentencing. He remarked that it is not the severity of the punishment that influences behavior, but instead the swiftness, that makes a difference. I thought this was an interesting position to take and without doing a ton of researches the subject, I tend to agree. I would think that the knowledge that the legal system works effectively and efficiently (but of course with all of the necessary procedures, so as to respect human rights and rights to due process) would be more of a deterrent than the mere possibility of being sentenced to 100 years in prison only if you are convicted. Bearing in mind that the Philadelphia district attorney’s office had alarmingly low conviction rates prior to his arrival would give credence to the idea that people that who are likely to offend would not be dissuaded from committing crimes, even when punishment is severe, if the likelihood of conviction is low.

I would like to add that I did not agree with Mr. Williams’s statements regarding what some would term “respectability politics.” He seemed to take the stance that the onus is on victims to moderate behavior so as not to become victims in the first place. I believe that view is limited.

James Hwang, Executive Editor

“Unless you’re willing to be part of the solution, you forfeit your right to complain.” These words are what inspired the elected District Attorney of Philadelphia Seth Williams to decide that he wanted to help fix our broken criminal system. To begin our discussion about the changing role of the American Prosecutor, Mr. Williams gave us contextual background by explaining that our decentralized criminal systems with elected prosecutors are a direct result of our colonial experience. The British Criminal Justice System did not have important rights such as due process and the right to remain silent. Consequently, the Bill of Rights came as a direct result of Americans wanting to create a more fair criminal system. Mr. Williams says that the beauty of having decentralized elected prosecutors is that they represent the people. Additionally, we have a grand jury that helps him decide when to bring a trial or not and when there is enough evidence to prove someone is guilty.

As the elected prosecutor, Mr. Williams has the right to bring and drop charges against the Commonwealth. He explains it as charging the right person with the right crime. Mr. Williams emphasizes that his job is not just to prosecute but more importantly to prevent crimes. Mr. Williams says that preventing crime begins at an early age. Stopping truancy and keeping kids in school is paramount to preventing crime. Statistics show that a person who has dropped out of school is more likely to be arrested and get into trouble than someone who has a high school diploma. As a result, this has to be addressed and kids have to stay in school. Mr. Williams has reorganized the DA office by looking at the empirical data of Philadelphia to determine patterns of crime based on time, location and season. Mr. Williams also looks to the best practices around the country to see what other governments are doing to prevent recidivism. He then tries to implement these successful methods into his work in Philadelphia. He says that one of the most important policy changes to prevent recidivism is to have universal pre-K, once again emphasizing the importance of education and for kids to be in school.

When asked about mental health in regards to crime, Mr. Williams explains that his statistics have shown that the majority of people who commit mass shootings have had mental problems or were bullied. However, mental illness is not the main reason for shootings in Philadelphia. Instead the majority of shootings in Philadelphia are a result of an argument in which someone is disrespected. Mr. Williams says that young people need to learn healthy conflict resolution skills and that it is often best to just walk away from a heated argument rather than to not be able to go home that day. He used the analogy of dodge ball: “Who wins dodge ball? The person who doesn’t get hit.” While there is no exact way to teach young people healthy conflict resolution skills, it can begin with schools where principals lead by example and demand excellence from everyone.