When two out of three people accused of violent crime walk free on all charges, we have a problem.
When illegal guns are rampant, witness intimidation is epidemic, and a top prosecutor says "the bail system is a complete cartoon," as chronicled in The Inquirer's series "Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied," which continues today and tomorrow, we have a dire problem.
Even though excellent people throughout the criminal justice system are trying to correct this nightmare, the system is undeniably broken.
District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, in her last month of 18 years as top prosecutor, was dismissive of the series' analysis. She derided federal crime-statistics comparisons among large urban counties that place Philadelphia's felony-conviction rate at rock bottom.
"I'm so incensed that you do justice by the numbers," Abraham said last week. "It would be so wrong - it would be so low-rent - of The Inquirer to put a period on the end of my tenure here to say, 'Oh, well, she had a conviction rate of X percent.' "
Yet analyzing the numbers is precisely how officials know whether any model is working. It's how School District officials judge an institution's performance and needs - why they're assigning 16 security officers to the racial tinderbox that is South Philadelphia High. Numerical analysis is how Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey can point to a significant success, that violent crimes are down 8 percent this year.
When a system is broken, when the numbers don't work, it's easy to assign blame. Defense attorneys argue that prosecutors clog courts with too many cases. Prosecutors claim that judges dismiss cases too quickly so they can clear dockets. Judges cite prison overcrowding that leaves them nowhere to put offenders. And every day, bad guys beat the rap.
To find a solution, "there has to be recognition by multiple parties that the system is broken," says Michael P. Jacobson, president of the Vera Institute of Justice, which offers independent analysis for legal systems in 30 states. "Then you need a diagnosis of what's going on, literally mapping the system."
Jeremy Travis, president of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says, "You need a series of interlocking agencies with distinct lines of accountability. Unless a criminal justice system recognizes it works as an entity - all branches working together to work better - the forces at work will pull in opposite directions." To support your efforts, "you might get empirical analysis from a trusted outside agency," he says, like Jacobson's Vera Institute.
Perhaps Philadelphia should hire an independent coordinator working with all branches of the justice system, as happened in New York City, where crime has dropped almost 76 percent since 1993.
"You have to get past finger-pointing," says Katherine Lapp, who served as coordinator under Rudy Giuliani. "We would have meetings on a monthly basis: police, the D.A.'s Office, representatives of the court, public defenders, probation and corrections officials, so everyone knew what everyone else was doing and had a vested interest in running a more effective system."
A triage system was instituted "trying to arraign as many people as possible within 24 hours of arrest," Lapp says. The population at the Rikers Island prison, at first well over capacity, went down. New York City's prison population went from 22,000 in the early '90s to 13,000 today; by comparison, Philadelphia, with about one-sixth the residents, has a prison population of more than 8,785.
"You can have far fewer people incarcerated and still drive down crime," says Jacobson, New York's former corrections commissioner. That then frees up money for other efforts.
Time is the enemy of criminal justice. "It's all bad, having a long disposition rate - the time from arrest to disposing of the cases," Jacobson says. Repeated delays foster a culture of witness intimidation. Fugitives skip bail. Cases spoil. Defendants walk free, an open invitation for the failed process to begin anew.
As the most recent police statistics show, something is already going right on the streets. Now it's time to fix the rest of the system.