Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

In Search of Justice

From a wholesale reorganization of the courthouse to an influx of money to relocate frightened witnesses, it has been a year of upheaval and reform for the Philadelphia criminal-justice system.

Imposing a system of changes in October to dramatically reshape the Philadelphia courts: Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille (center), with Justice Seamus McCaffery (left) and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)
Imposing a system of changes in October to dramatically reshape the Philadelphia courts: Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille (center), with Justice Seamus McCaffery (left) and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)Read more

From a wholesale reorganization of the courthouse to an influx of money to relocate frightened witnesses, it has been a year of upheaval and reform for the Philadelphia criminal-justice system.

After an Inquirer series portrayed the courts in crisis - plagued by abysmal conviction rates, unchecked witness intimidation, and a massive fugitive count - top judges and the new district attorney have pushed through a host of changes.

The result: More cases are going to trial and being decided on their merits, fewer cases are collapsing for procedural reasons, and conviction rates are rising.

The changes - some sweeping, some subtle - came at the insistence of two justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and his colleague Seamus McCaffery.

Despite grumbling, skepticism, and even passive resistance from some city judges, the justices imposed a series of directives that have dramatically reshaped the court arena.

District Attorney Seth Williams, who took office in January, put forth an ambitious agenda of his own and often worked with the justices to effect change.

Now, early statistics seem to show that the changes are paying off.

In separate studies, a consultant hired by the Supreme Court and a new research unit in the District Attorney's Office found that Philadelphia Municipal Court judges are tossing out fewer cases and sending more defendants on to trial in Common Pleas Court. Previously, judges in the lower court were dismissing thousands of cases each year with no ruling on the merits.

The changes have been far-reaching:

Castille and McCaffery imposed rules giving city prosecutors more time to prepare cases, and ordered Municipal Court's two dozen judges to hold preliminary hearings in absentia for defendants who fail to show.

The two justices have proposed to spare thousands of victims from having to testify at early court hearings on property crimes, saying police could take the stand on their behalf. The full court is expected to approve this within the month.

They also appointed a panel to study the system from top to bottom and recommend reforms. The state Senate also created a task force to address the issues raised in The Inquirer's series.

Williams revamped his office's charging unit, ordering his prosecutors to be more selective in bringing cases and charges.

He also pushed through "Zone Court" - a radical restructuring of his office and the courthouse so that prosecutors and judges are assigned to cases on a neighborhood basis. No longer are hearings scattered around the city in police districts.

State and city officials came up with new funding for Philadelphia's witness-relocation program. Its budget has been restored to its highest levels in years.

Court officials reversed decades of inaction by moving to pursue some of the staggering $1 billion in forfeited bail owed by 210,000 fugitives.

The city abolished the Clerk of Quarter Sessions Office, an obscure court agency that dated to the days of William Penn - and that seemed to operate as though it were still equipped with quill pens and inkwells. Mayor Nutter and City Council axed the agency and the elected post of clerk after The Inquirer reported that its records were a shambles and that it had no computerized accounting of who owed how much of the $1 billion.

A year ago - in the series "Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied" - The Inquirer provided the first public accounting of conviction rates in the Philadelphia courts.

Tracing 31,000 cases, the newspaper found that nearly two-thirds of all defendants charged with violent crimes in the city were escaping conviction on all charges. Philadelphia, the paper reported, had one of the nation's lowest felony-conviction rates - and one of its highest fugitive rates.

Castille initially questioned the newspaper's findings, but changed his mind after the Supreme Court's consultant verified the paper's analysis.

"We all sat down and said, 'We have got to do something about this system,' " said Castille, a former Philadelphia district attorney. "We are looking for justice to happen in this court system. There were some glaring things that were pointed out where justice was not occurring."

McCaffery, a former homicide detective, said the newspaper's work had spurred the high court to intervene in the Philadelphia courts "to shut down as much as we can the revolving door of justice."

"Real change in a ship of this size is monumental," he said. "It's obvious the ship is turning."

While Williams, the new district attorney, has cut back on felony prosecutions 9 percent, his office has actually increased the number of cases that advance to trial.

All of this reflects a Municipal Court in flux. Before, that court was the place where criminal cases died. As The Inquirer reported in its series, of all violent-crime cases that collapsed each year, 84 percent did so in Municipal Court.

To cut down on volume in the busy court, Williams adopted a more lenient policy toward marijuana possession, diverting about 3,000 cases by charging them as summary offenses. That's 5 percent of the entire criminal caseload.

Most dramatic, Williams persuaded the justices to force the Philadelphia courts to adopt his "Zone Court" plan.

Williams said the plan, under which cases from the same neighborhoods were grouped together on designated courtroom floors, would build connections among prosecutors, police, and community leaders. And moving hearings from the neighborhoods to the more secure main courthouse, he said, would make witnesses and victims feel safer and less intimidated.

"We're trying to get more justice for victims, a fair system for the defendant," Williams said.

"We have to address witness intimidation, the high rate of dismissals for lack of prosecution, the high fugitive rate. We're trying to get so many things done."

In the courts, the changes have been dizzying.

"The days in some courtrooms are proving to be extraordinarily long," said Marsha H. Neifield, president judge of Municipal Court. "Overall, we're noticing an increase in the number of cases that are going on in any given day."

While Ellen T. Greenlee, chief public defender, said it was too early to assess the impact of the changes, other defense lawyers were more critical.

Michael J. Engle, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said a surge in cases being held for trial might simply mean that judges were pushing along "crappy" cases.

"That doesn't mean that justice is being served," he said.

But Williams' top aides say they are encouraged by the early statistical results - reached separately by the District Attorney's Office and the high court's consultant - showing that prosecutors are winning more victories.

"I think the numbers are hard to argue with," said Joseph McGettigan, Williams' chief deputy.

"It's very, very encouraging," echoed Sara V. Hart, the head of Williams' research unit.

William Chadwick, the consultant hired by the state Supreme Court and a former senior Philadelphia prosecutor, agreed that the initial results were promising, but he said the city courts still had far to go. Even with the improvement, his analysis showed that only about 49 percent of all cases were being held for trial.

"The performance is obviously very poor, very problematic and troubling," Chadwick said. "There are far too many people walking out with no adjudication on the merits."

While court officials have taken steps to collect long-overdue bail owed, they have been slower to address the underlying issue: the court's broken bail system. But they promise that change is coming.

As The Inquirer reported, Philadelphia defendants skip court with virtual impunity.

The paper found that one of out of every three defendants missed at least one court hearing.

This finding was confirmed by a second analysis. Drawing upon research by a criminologist from Loyola University in Chicago, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported that 30 percent of Philadelphia defendants released on bail failed to show up for at least one court appearance.

Pew found that Philadelphia's "failure to appear" rate was double New York City's and 21/2 times the rate in Washington.

While many of the Philadelphia defendants eventually surfaced, the delays wore out victims and witnesses and helped undermine cases.

And thousands of defendants skipped court and never returned.

For years, according to federal studies, Philadelphia has had one of the nation's highest long-term-fugitive rates. In 2004, the last year the city was studied, 11 percent of defendants skipped court and were still gone a year later.

Philadelphia's outsize problem reflects its toothless bail system - and its equally weak effort at tracking down fugitives.

After abolishing private bail in the early 1970s because of corruption, Philadelphia court officials have operated the bail system themselves. Most defendants are released after putting up only 10 percent of their bail. They are told that they will owe the rest if they skip.

For years, that warning has been meaningless.

Until The Inquirer spotlighted the issue, the court system had for decades made no effort to go after the remaining 90 percent.

At the paper's request, the courts finally computed how much fugitives owed the city in uncollected bail: $1,001,432,474.

Now, the courts are going after that back bail and moving more quickly to extract cash from newer defendants who have ducked court.

The billing campaign hasn't raised much so far - just $150,000, an almost infinitesimal 0.015 percent of the $1 billion owed.

Beyond that, the courts have done nothing to overhaul the bail system itself.

In a move critics dismissed as a public-relations maneuver, top judges this summer simply dropped charges against 19,400 of the city's 47,000 long-term fugitives.

On paper at least, this lightened the burden on the court's tiny fugitive squad. It has 55 officers to go after the vast pool of absconders.

After holding hearings on The Inquirer's series, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) pressured the U.S. Marshals Service to add 10 marshals to help Philadelphia pursue fugitives from court.

Acting U.S. Marshal John Patrignani said last week that he had no statistics on how many arrests the new staff had made.

Indeed, top judges say they are unsure if Philadelphia has an unusually severe fugitive problem.

"I'm uncomfortable with the use of the word problem," Municipal Court's Neifield said. "Would we be happier if it were better? Yes."

In August, Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe, one of the two leaders of Common Pleas Court, told a state Senate panel that Philadelphia's fugitive rate was no worse than those of other large cities.

The panel, which is examining court reform, was appointed by the chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, Stewart J. Greenleaf, a Republican representing parts of Montgomery and Bucks Counties.

In a recent interview, Dembe said she questioned the federal surveys that said Philadelphia had the nation's highest rate of long-term fugitives.

"I'm not willing to agree without spending a whole lot of time comparing apples to apples, oranges and oranges," she said.

Neither Dembe nor Judge D. Webster Keogh, the other top judge in Common Pleas Court, could say what the fugitive rate was now in Philadelphia.

Keogh said he would leave it to the task force appointed by the state Supreme Court.

"I have enough dealing with what I have to deal with," Keogh said. "I think that's part of what that little commission is looking at. I imagine they'll have recommendations."

Nonetheless, court officials, spurred on by the Supreme Court, as well as advisory panel appointed by the state Senate, seem poised to tackle the bail system in the coming year.

"Most people in the criminal-justice system agree that the bail system is in need of an examination," Court Administrator David C. Lawrence said in a recent interview. "We are certainly open to exploring other ways of doing business."

Lawrence and others said they were focusing on updating the "risk-assessment" techniques used to identify defendants likely to run.

In addition, court officials say they hope to begin using e-mail and cell-phone messages to remind defendants of court hearings.

One thing is clear: Philadelphia officials are opposed to bringing back private bail.

"The bail-bondsmen system has been tried," said Dembe. "And that was not only a flop - it was a criminal fiasco."

To get advice on how to fix the system, officials have brought in experts from the Pretrial Justice Institute, a nonprofit in Washington that is a vigorous critic of the commercial bail system.

Advocates of private bail cite federal and academic research showing that private industry is far more effective than government in getting defendants to court.

Dennis Bartlett, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, a trade group for bail insurers, said Philadelphia was doubling down on a government-run system that had failed.

"What they're basically doing is retooling the existing system and hoping that it's going to work," he said. "It's not."

Both the state Supreme Court task force and the Senate advisory panel are studying the fugitive problem.

McCaffery said he was confident that officials would find a solution to this and other problems confronting the courts.

A decade ago, as the top judge of Municipal Court, McCaffery futilely tried to shake up the city courts but met an unyielding wall of resistance.

This time around, with the Supreme Court, the district attorney, and the state Senate all pushing for change, McCaffery said, he believes the outcome will be different.

"Our legacy," he said, "should be massive change in the system."