"It is a system that really is no system at all and it has very little to do with justice."

- The Inquirer, Feb. 18, 1973

"In a two-year investigation of Philadelphia's courts, The Inquirer has found a system that often delivers anything but justice."

- The Inquirer, Jan. 26, 1986

"It is a system that all too often fails to punish violent criminals, fails to protect witnesses, fails to catch thousands of fugitives, fails to decide cases on their merits - fails to provide justice."

- The Inquirer, Dec. 13, 2009

For nearly four decades, there has been no shortage of journalistic light trained upon Philadelphia's court system.

Time and again, investigative reporters have placed the city's justice system under intense scrutiny.

Each time, the verdict reached has been guilty - of a range of judicial ills.

Yet little seems to have improved as the city's courts continue to sag under the weight of too many cases, too little funding, and varying levels of dysfunction.

"Except for degrees, the system probably hasn't changed that much," said former Inquirer reporter James B. Steele, who cowrote a 1973 series based on the first computer-assisted analysis of a court system's performance.

In those stories, statistics revealed tough-talking prosecutors to be surprisingly lenient - reducing or plea-bargaining some of the worst crimes of violence down to minimal sentences or probation. Vastly irregular sentences were imposed, swayed by the race, age, and social status of criminals and victims.

A decade later, a 1986 series exposed a swamp of patronage, nepotism, judicial misconduct, and political influence. The stories proved prescient: The following year, 15 judges were removed for ethical violations in the Roofers Union bribery scandal.

Last week, a four-day series cast Philadelphia's criminal courts as horribly broken: chaotic and fraught with dismissed charges, abysmal conviction rates, witness intimidation, epidemic bail-jumping, and rocketing caseloads in what has become, per capita, the nation's most violent big city.

The most recent stories affirmed a phenomenon noted early on by Steele and his colleague, Donald L. Barlett, who wrote of a system "that is breeding its own peculiar kind of criminals: men who have been arrested two or more times for rape or murder and three or more times for robbery."

Last week's stories, for instance, featured a 23-year-old man with 44 arrests, most for armed robbery. And only one conviction: a drug rap.

Has anything really changed since 1973? If not, why not?

The answers are mixed. A handful of statewide measures and local fixes have addressed some of the problems, but nothing amounting to comprehensive reform has surfaced.

"We do a lot of finger-pointing, but we don't have a lot of productive interaction between the different stakeholders: the courts, the prosecutors, the defenders, the prisons, and law enforcement," said William DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. "The result is that today you have a court system that is totally clogged, prison systems that really can't absorb much more, and a legislature where the feeling is to create longer sentences and criminalize more activities."

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), a former prosecutor and longtime chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, concurs with DiMascio that the "tough on crime" mantra of politicians needs to become more thoughtful.

"Statewide, our justice system is broken. It's not just Philadelphia," Greenleaf said. "There is very little successful effort to rehabilitate nonviolent offenders, meaning some of them eventually will become violent. We treat everybody the same, and we need a new model."

With more than 50,000 state prisoners - up 484 percent since 1980 - and a soaring recidivism rate, Pennsylvania is constantly building new prisons at $200 million a pop, Greenleaf said. That money would be better spent on community and rehabilitative programs for nonviolent drug offenders, thus freeing space for violent criminals who need to be imprisoned, he said.

And it is not as if Philadelphia, despite its low felony conviction rates, isn't already stocking those cells.

More than half the state's 4,685 inmates serving life in prison were sentenced in Philadelphia, as were 105 of Pennsylvania's 219 death-row inmates.

"Probably the most beneficial improvements in Philadelphia have been the development of drug treatment courts," which emphasize treatment over incarceration, said Jules Epstein, an associate professor at Widener University School of Law. "They treat underlying problems and keep people out of jail, which is an incredibly costly, and often counterproductive, solution."

Yet such courts are the first to fall victim to politicians' budget pressures, Epstein said, "because whatever you do, you always have to look tough on crime."

Some of the region's best-known politicians have long been part of the maddening debate over how to improve the city's courts.

In 1973, then-District Attorney Arlen Specter, a rising political star, swiftly called a news conference to denounce The Inquirer's criticism of his office. Last week, Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) just as swiftly scheduled a Senate hearing Dec. 28 in Philadelphia into the problem of witness intimidation detailed last week by The Inquirer.

The 1986 series prompted former District Attorney Ed Rendell, saying there was "infinitely too much screwing around with cases" in Philadelphia, to declare that nothing would change until judges were selected on a merit system, not by election.

This month, Gov. Rendell continued to beat the merit-selection drum. Pennsylvanians, wary of the role money plays in judicial elections, "have been losing faith in our courts and our judges," he wrote Dec. 7 in a letter to state lawmakers.

Yet even as Philadelphia's judicial problems continue, they have helped to inspire some statewide changes.

The most significant came in the 1980s, when legislators adopted state sentencing guidelines.

The guidelines established a range of recommended sentences for offenders, based on the severity of the crime, the defendant's criminal past, and other factors. Judges who choose to reject that range in favor of a higher or lower sentence must publicly state their reasons for doing so.

The guidelines' legislative history reveals "concerns about sentences in Philadelphia seeming lenient, as compared to those around the rest of the state," said Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing.

Judicial scandals in Philadelphia and elsewhere prompted voters to pass a statewide referendum in 1993 that made the state's once-closed process of disciplining judges more open. Judges' misconduct trials are now held in public, with verdicts rendered by a panel of judges, lawyers, and nonlawyers.

But getting statewide support for anything seen as a Philadelphia issue, such as gun control, is difficult, said Lynn Marks, executive director of the Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts reform group.

"For Philadelphia, the challenge is to educate everybody in the state about the problems in the city," Marks said. "And as we all know, there's a lot of anti-Philadelphia bias around the state. Even if we were to change only the way Philadelphia judges are chosen, it would still require statewide approval because it would be a change in the constitution."

Greenleaf, who has helped supplement Pennsylvania's sentencing guidelines by enacting mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes, is now rethinking some of those priorities.

"There is very little successful effort made to rehabilitate nonviolent offenders," he said. "I take responsibility for that, and so should the legislature. Our justice system will break down if we just have a punishment model."

Yet even Philadelphia's ability to punish seems broken.

According to The Inquirer's findings, only one in five violent-crime prosecutions results in a felony conviction, the nation's lowest rate for a major urban area.

While many attribute the widespread dismissal of cases to factors such as witness intimidation, repeated delays, and other inefficiencies, some defense lawyers are skeptical.

They say that police and District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, in an effort to seem tough on crime, often inflate the charges brought, leaving it to judges to weed out weak cases by dismissing them.

"There is witness intimidation, but it's not what I consider to be the only cause or even the main cause" for low felony conviction rates, said Philadelphia lawyer Ronald L. Greenblatt. "The main cause of that rate is that the police and the district attorney make a decision that any time someone is accused of a crime, they get arrested - and that's not always the proper thing to do."

In a recent interview with The Inquirer, Abraham disputed the statistics' significance, saying she could inflate her conviction rates simply by undercharging defendants.

"I can have a 100 percent conviction rate, or maybe 98," Abraham said. "I'm going to charge less, plead down most, make deals, raise your conviction rate.

"Problem solved."

Contact staff writer Larry King
at 215-345-0446 or lking@phillynews.com.