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Stu Bykofsky: D.A. candidates tell us how we can trust the system again

THE RECENT Kensington Beatdown added a new chapter to Philadelphia folkore, already an encyclopedia of dysfunction from cannibalism to wilding to flash mobs.

THE RECENT Kensington Beatdown added a new chapter to Philadelphia folkore, already an encyclopedia of dysfunction from cannibalism to wilding to flash mobs.

Following my recent anti-vigilante column, response from the "hang 'em high" posse was larger - and certainly angrier - than from the "leave it to the law" prayer circle.

A common theme among the Street Justice crowd was a lack of confidence in the criminal-justice system. They see felonies bargained down to wrist-slaps, bad guys beating the rap, paroled violent criminals roaming the streets, and good people finding justice delayed or denied. Some are so angry they seem ready to embrace Sharia law.

How to rebuild confidence? Why not ask the guys whose job it will be - Philadelphia D.A. candidates Democrat Seth Williams and Republican Michael Untermeyer?

I asked them, separately, for their best idea to restore citizens' belief that the system can be made to work. I didn't tell either what the other said, nor let either criticize the other. I wanted answers, not political posturing.

Topping Republican Untermeyer's list is gun violence.

The most recent report from gun court "shows 49 percent of individuals convicted of gun charges" get probation, not jail, Untermeyer says. I checked the report, covering 2005. He's right.

And we say we're serious about gun crime in Philly?

As D.A., he promises he'd have "zero tolerance of illegal handguns."

Untermeyer would demand cash bail for all gun offenses and end plea bargains. He would advocate for tighter sentencing guidelines to keep gunmen in the can longer.

He also would use "vertical prosecution," assigning prosecutors to a case they would manage from start to finish. Currently, victims might have to deal with several prosecutors during the life of a case.

How would he avoid clogging the courts and overcrowding the already overcrowded jails if he demanded cash bail and prosecuted all gun cases?

Untermeyer's answer: Technology.

For those charged, or convicted, of nonviolent crimes, Untermeyer suggests GPS-enabled electronic ankle monitors, which can be leased for $8 a day, as opposed to $98 a day for incarceration. He'd use monitors on people who need drug or alcohol treatment, or mental counseling. "These people don't have to be in prison and shouldn't be in prison," he says. (As a demonstration, sometime this summer Untermeyer will strap on a monitor and allow anyone to track him 24/7 on his Web site.)

In a separate conversation, Democrat Williams told me that his main method of creating confidence in the criminal-justice system would be community-based prosecution.

Acknowledging that "there are serious walls and barriers between the public and law enforcement," he would assign prosecutors to communities rather than have most work out of Center City's Criminal Justice Center.

"District attorneys will be working much more closely with specific neighborhoods, so that the people in the community will begin to build working relationships with district attorneys they see consistently," he says.

"People want justice, people want fairness. They think we prosecute too many cases that are nonsensical. We need to use our resources to go after people who are raping 11-year-old girls, not stealing lawn gnomes."

I don't know how the Lawn Gnome Lobby will feel about that, but I'll let it pass.

To save time and prison cells, Williams would prosecute less, rather than more. "If a case lacks probable cause or won't get by the preliminary hearing," he'd drop it.

"Try the cases that should be tried, and plead the cases that should be negotiated," he says.

To evaluate the ideas, I turn to someone I'll call Mr. Justice, who knows more about the courts than I ever will.

Williams' community-based prosecution would require the consent and cooperation of others, such as the courts and police, Mr. Justice says. Vertical prosecution sounds good, he says, until "a lawyer gets hit with 60 cases a day in Muni" - meaning Municipal Court.

Untermeyer's vertical prosecution would be easier - although not easy - to install, Mr. Justice says, because that lies within the D.A.'s discretion.

OK, vigilantes: With apologies to Chris Matthews, who makes you feel a thrill going up your leg - Untermeyer or Williams?

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