Philly DA candidates: You work for the people, not the crook
Whenever you see a criminal case cited, it's usually something along the lines of "People v. So-and-So" or "State v. So-and-So" or in Pennsylvania, "Commonwealth v. So-and-So."
WHENEVER YOU see a criminal case cited, it's usually something along the lines of "People v. So-and-So" or "State v. So-and-So" or in Pennsylvania, "Commonwealth v. So-and-So." This is important. When a criminal defendant is being charged with a crime, it is an adversarial proceeding with civilization on the other side. In other words, society is accusing a specific individual of violating the laws that protect all of the people living within it. It is not a personal thing. It is a communal reckoning. And since we cannot have all of society huddled into the courtroom to present the case against the alleged wrongdoer, we pick one person to represent us. That person is the prosecutor.
This is, of course, a self-evident statement. The prosecutor defends the rights of the innocent citizens against the criminal, and the criminal has both the Constitution and his or her own defense attorney for protection. The defender, whether public or private, must zealously seek due process for the client.
But the prosecutor's client is we, the innocent and aggrieved people. Contrary to popular belief, the direct victim of the criminal's actions (the woman who has been raped, the parents of the murdered child, the business owner whose store has been robbed at gunpoint) are not the ones the prosecutor is primarily engaged to protect. But, of course, those victims are a part of the greater society of innocents, and deserve special consideration in the administration of justice.
The one thing that the prosecutor is not supposed to be overly concerned with is compassion for the accused. I know that goes against everything we are told about rehabilitation, re-integration into society, empathy for the defendant and a consideration of mitigating factors such as poverty, racial discrimination, sexual inequality, and the scourge of drug abuse.
But here's the thing: In a balanced world with an adversarial system that cares more about the victims than the victimizers, especially recidivists, prosecutors should be spending their time figuring out guilt or innocence, and then applying the laws as written. They shouldn't be worrying about the accused.
Their tears should be for the woman who has been raped, not her rapist. Their anger should be used as a sword to avenge the assault on a mother whose son has been shot before her very eyes. Their expertise should be employed to make whole the store owner, and make sure the robber pays for his theft with the appropriate number of days cut out of his life as a free man.
Watching the recent debates between the Democratic candidates for Philadelphia district attorney, it has become quite clear that the majority of the people who are vying to be the "people's attorney" have a very twisted sense of their duties and obligations to we, their clients. I listened as each became squeamish (and I became nauseous) when it came to the death penalty, with most all of them supporting at least a moratorium. It was astounding to hear that lawyers who want us to entrust them with our lives and our security basically believe that even if your son or daughter is raped and then murdered by a sociopath, he or she will not seek to have him executed.
Beyond that, though, the candidates are in some sort of race to see who will be crowned "Most Liberal" by the ACLU. I remember when Arlen Specter, Ed Rendell and Lynne Abraham were district attorneys, and each one was willing to do whatever was necessary to fight for the rights of the "people," even if it meant seeking a death sentence that would ultimately be tied up in years of appeals. At least for them, the symbolism of doing the right thing mattered. The people up there on the stage seemed more concerned with who would be the most compassionate and evolved.
Then there is the whole opposition to the idea of cash bail, which has a very legitimate purpose: keeping violent criminals off the streets and guaranteeing that flight risks come to court. The hostility toward this is unfathomable.
This very obvious and very troubling shift to the left among the Democratic candidates is shared among the candidates. Each of the men, and the one woman, vying for the position as top prosecutor have experience, and integrity. But their philosophies do not convince me that I, a potential crime victim who wants my potential abuser/rapist/robber/assailant/murderer to pay the highest price for his lawlessness will have a friendly ear among them. They seem more concerned with assuring that certain socially acceptable activities (marijuana use, for example) be downgraded to summary offenses, eliciting applause from the kind of folks who openly flout the drug laws or the politicians like our mayor and former DA who think decriminalization is hip. What idiocy.
The broken-window theory that Rudy Giuliani employed to great effect in New York proves that decreasing our tolerance for petty crimes will in turn cause a decrease in the more serious offenses. Our prosecutors should only care about convicting the guilty and getting them off the streets. They represent us, and as long as they do it within the parameters of the constitution, they have no right to be getting all "I feel your pain" with some gun-wielding thug.
But that falls on the deaf ears of folks who sound more like public defenders than chief enforcement officers.
Christine Flowers is a lawyer