The gallery of one man’s mug shots on the front page of The Inquirer yesterday, chronicling some of John Gassew’s 44 arrests, perfectly illustrates the dysfunction of Philadelphia’s criminal justice system.
It is infuriating and alarming to learn that Gassew, a criminal-court veteran at age 23, remains free despite dozens of charges of armed robbery and other violent offenses.
Every judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, and elected official should be outraged and embarrassed by the breakdown in Philadelphia’s courts detailed in the series. Taxpayers, police officers, crime victims, and witnesses are all fed up with the parade of violent criminals who flout the system and terrorize the streets.
Now that the four-day series has ended, one burning question remains: What will it take to fix a criminal justice system that is clearly broken?
Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) plans to hold a public hearing on the issue in Philadelphia on Monday. That’s a fine start. It should shed more light and — it is hoped — some heat on the issue.
But this is a complex problem in a messy criminal justice system with a lot of separate parts. No one person is completely in charge — or at fault. There is plenty of blame to go around. And in a city long bereft of strong leadership on this issue, no one with the power to address the problem seems eager to step forward.
However, this isn’t a problem that one person can solve anyway. It’s a serious crisis that threatens the general welfare and safety of the entire Philadelphia region. It demands that all those in positions of authority and responsibility work to fix the problem. Now.
Mayor Nutter has the biggest bully pulpit in the city. He also has a lot of other issues on his plate. But, as he has noted many times, crime impacts the quality of life in Philadelphia in many ways. He must make it a priority.
The city spends about $100 million a year to operate the courts — a responsibility Harrisburg has abdicated despite a state Supreme Court ruling years ago that says the state should fund them.
As mayor, Nutter has some skin in this game, and the power. He should use it. He should declare an emergency, gather key stakeholders in a room, and start coming up with ideas.
Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, a former Philadelphia district attorney, could help Nutter lead the way. Other key players who should be involved include President Judge Marsha H. Neifield of the Philadelphia Municipal Court; Judge Lydia Y. Kirkland, who supervises the court’s criminal division; and Pamela P. Dembe, president judge of the Court of Common Pleas.
Incoming District Attorney Seth Williams also should be there. This is a perfect opportunity for him to begin changes that will help reduce case dismissals.
Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Levy should be brought in to help with the prosecution of the most violent felons. Of course, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey should be included to discuss efforts to arrest fugitives and reduce witness intimidation.
The leaders of the criminal defense bar, as officers of the court, must be a part of the solution.