Michael Untermeyer's proposals to reform the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office did not draw much attention Wednesday, as he presented them in a soft drizzle outside the city's Criminal Justice Center.
But for one large group of people who visited the building that day — defendants in criminal cases making court appearances — the Democratic primary election for district attorney is shaping up to be very much about them.
There are six Democrats, including Untermeyer, a former city and state prosecutor, expected to file nomination petitions by Tuesday's deadline for a spot on the May 16 primary ballot.
They all are pushing reforms of some sort. Most of that talk centers on nonviolent offenders, those addicted to drugs, and those too poor to post bail.
This is a continuation of work under way across our criminal justice system, from the courts to the public defenders to current District Attorney Seth Williams.
Former Gov. Ed Rendell, who started his political career as Philadelphia's district attorney, is watching the race with the rapt attention of a guy who loves both the office and campaigns.
"Being DA is a balance of keeping people from being abused by the system and ferreting out innocent people before they go to trial," Rendell said. "But at the same time there are seriously dangerous people who come through the system who must be taken off the streets."
The city is now working to reduce its jail population, funded in part by a $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, which offers some sobering statistics.
Three out of every five inmates we hold while awaiting trial are accused of nonviolent offenses. The average length for a stay in a Philadelphia jail is 95 days, four times the national average.
Changing the city's cash bail program will be front and center in the race for district attorney.
Joe Khan, a former federal prosecutor who started his career in the District Attorney's Office, calls it "our outdated, amoral bail policy." He has also called for ending the prosecution of low-level drug possession cases, to shift focus to health care for addicts.
Rich Negrin, a former city prosecutor, was the city's managing director when it applied for the MacArthur Foundation grant.
"I think we all agree we need bail reform," Negrin said. "We criminalize poverty and lock people up far too quickly and for far too long."
Civil Rights lawyer Larry Krasner notes that the cost of keeping one person locked up for a year would be better spent paying for the salary of a public schoolteacher or police officer. Krasner has also vowed to stop the District Attorney's Office from seeking the death penalty in murder cases, if elected.
Tariq El-Shabazz, who left the post as first assistant deputy district attorney last month, wants to create a "day reporting" system to keep nonviolent offenders out of jail before trial.
Former Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni has been talking up the MacArthur Foundation grant work since her first day in the race.
Let me stop you if all this prompts an "only in Philadelphia" kind of cynical response to candidates trying to make the criminal justice system more efficient and fair. It isn't only Philadelphia.
Keir Bradford-Grey, chief of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, says the city has been studying bail models and other reforms from New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and other jurisdictions. Bradford-Grey, who turned down offers of support to run for district attorney, said the MacArthur Foundation grant has created "consensus" among the players in the criminal justice system about what can be accomplished.
"I wish that Philadelphia came up with it," she said. "But we did not. But we can still be part of the creativity and innovation that is going on across the country."