How exactly do you describe District Attorney-elect Seth Williams' reaction to the stunning deficiencies in Philadelphia's criminal justice system detailed in "Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied," the revelatory Inquirer series this week?

Is it possible to be not surprised and shocked at the same time?

Apparently so.

"This validates what I've been saying for the past five years," said Williams, 42, who has preached about the D.A. Office's abysmal dismissal rates for felonious crime ever since he ran unsuccessfully against Lynne M. Abraham in 2005. "Everybody thought I was crying wolf."

But even as he sounded the alarm, he didn't know it was this bad.

Among the 10 biggest U.S. cities, Philadelphia has the highest rates of homicide, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault but the lowest conviction rate for violent crimes.

A dysfunctional legal system virtually enabling criminals to thumb their noses with a, "See ya, suckers," knowing that cases will be dropped.

Preliminary hearings postponed into perpetuity. Witnesses intimidated, even killed. Residents and police alike regularly failing to appear to testify. A bail system that's a joke. And on and on.

"I didn't know we were the worst," Williams conceded Tuesday, admitting shock at the extent to which system failures have allowed scores of gun-packing felons to go free. Not to mention that the city's a ticking time bomb, with all those illegal guns around.

As someone who grew up in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood of West Philadelphia, Williams is saddened by how poorly the system's incompetencies tarnish the city's image.

Come Jan. 4, he'll inherit the whole mess. But he's already jumped in.

Call to action

Though Abraham, not surprisingly, criticized The Inquirer's report, Williams didn't shy away from the truth. In fact, he called a special meeting with his staff Tuesday to brainstorm urgent changes that could mean the difference between life and death.

"We have to reexamine the entire structure of how preliminary hearings are handled," Williams said. When more than 60 percent "of criminals get off, that means they're winning."

When witnesses go south and hearings get postponed indefinitely, it tells Williams changes must be made on the front end.

"We have to do a better job of not passing on cases. And the D.A.s have to have more direct contact with victims and witnesses."

After five years of preaching it, Williams' notion of community prosecuting - connecting a team of assistant district attorneys with police and community leaders to monitor neighborhood crime - is an idea whose time has come.

All have to feel that they have a stake in the neighborhood. With community support, witnesses just might be more likely to follow through when it comes time to testify.

Prevention first

But Williams' top priority, along with fixing how his office operates and getting illegal guns off the street, is to prevent neighborhood kids from becoming felons - or victims - in the first place.

I caught up while he spoke to students on a recent trip to De La Salle in Towne, a school for court-referred youths in Center City.

Tough audience. And it got even tougher once the students realized Williams will be the one who "locks people up" in Philly.

Instead of arguing, Williams calmly answered every question. As hard as he is on violent crime, he believes in second chances.

After all, Williams - son of a white teenage mother and a black father - got a second chance when he was adopted by Rufus and Imelda Williams.

"These kids remind me of some of the friends I had," Williams said. "They don't start off shooting cops."

The road to crime is predictable, he said. Most offenses by minors happen between 3 and 6 p.m., after school. Chronic truancy is next. ("The high school diploma is the No. 1 tool to reduce crime.") Then come more serious crimes. Drugs. Armed robbery. Shooting one another.

Chances are they'll grind through a legal justice system that may convict them - or not.

"We have to be smart on crime," Williams said. "Not just tough. We have seven times more people incarcerated than we did 10 years ago, but we're not seven times safer."

Which is why Williams is out to change outcomes when prevention is possible or punishment necessary.

"People don't care if I'm soft or tough," he says. "They care if I'm effective."

Contact columnist Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or Ajohnhall@phillynews.com.