Monday, December 14, 2009

Philadelphia: Broken criminal justice system contributes to highest violent crime rate

The Philadelphia Inquirer begins a four-part series analyzing 31,000 cases that finds the courts overwhelmed with high caseloads that cram dockets. The courts are being gamed by defense attorneys, the prosecutors are poorly managed and disorganized, court and correctional administrators can't get subpoenaed inmates to court on time, witnesses are intimidated into silence, and tens of thousands of fugitives who skip bail are never sought or found.

Philadelphia has the highest violent crime rate for large urban counties. Is this the fault of due process and the Constitution? No, this is system-wide failure of the criminal justice system.

System-wide failure incurs a tremendous price. Fear diminishes the quality of life of hundreds of thousands. Thousands of crimes are committed by offenders who learn the system of punishment is toothless. Every city resident pays more for insurance. Most city real estate is worth less because of the incidence and fear of crime. The city's tax base is weakened. Hundreds of thousands of people flee the city over the years, leading to suburban sprawl, damaged watersheds, loss of farms and habitat, and the consumption of millions of barrels of imported oil increasing our dependence on corrupt foreign governments and contributing to long-term global climate change. The city's schools suffer.

System-wide failure also encourages demoralized law enforcers to take vigilante justice, to bend rules, to engage in perjury, to frame defendants they believe are guilty, and to tolerate perjury by defendant-informants who are offered freedom for their testimony. If a chronic offender keeps getting off, the temptation is great to plant evidence like drugs or a firearm to get a public menace off the street.

System-wide failure also enables the concealment of cases that are fixed or thrown to appear as simply the system not working, as usual.

System-wide failure can lead legislators to propose empty, ineffective "fixes" such as longer sentences, across the board limits on bail, or restrictions on civil liberties. The role of budget crises, the low tax on alcoholic beverages, the diversion of resources to pointless drug cases, and the failure to tax the production and use of drugs like marijuana, are rarely examined as features that can contribute to system reform and safer streets.

System-wide failure severely limits the ability of any reformer -- whether a mayor, a new district attorney or a new police chief -- from fixing the system. A mayor may pick the police chief, but she doesn't control the independently elected district attorney, the judges or judicial administrators.

Paraphrasing the wise observation of a criminal justice researcher after evaluating a successful experiment in probation management, "It is easier to change the behavior of hard core drug addicts than it is to change the behavior of criminal court judges!" Lawyers and judges are deeply committed to doing business the way it has always been done.

To achieve change is possible. But it will require sustained pressure from the business community, church leaders, and a broad range of civic leaders. Don't look to the usual actors in the criminal justice system to identify or execute the necessary change.

I used to live in Philadelphia more than 30 years ago when I was actively practicing law in Pennsylvania. My car was stolen from in front of my home in the Mount Airy neighborhood one night. The chop shop's accomplices worked in the police department. In order to dispose of my stripped car, its stolen status was deleted from the police department's computerized database.

Good luck, Philadelphia!

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