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Taking New Approaches to Crime in the District Attorney’s Office

June 16, 2010

Philadelphia is a big city.  As a result, it has more than its share of crime, from theft, to drug offenses to homicide.  True, there has been a slight decrease in violent crimes in the past couple of years (homicides fell slightly from 333 in 2008 to 305 last year, while aggravated assaults, rapes and robberies also had similar drops).  Still, I don’t think many city residents feel (or should feel) completely safe walking down streets at night.

One of the approaches by new District Attorney Seth Williams to allow for better enforcement of laws (and possibly lead to more convictions) is to change the way cases in the system are handled.  Typically, in the past, there has been a lot of “horizontal” handling by DAs.  In other words, certain DAs would be assigned to handle steps in the system, such as just the arraignments while others would handle the actual pleas and trials.  As District Attorney Williams noted in a speech to my firm last month, he’s implemented “vertical” integration of all cases.  Now, a DA will get a case at its inception and handle it from start to finish.  Previously, this type of integration would take place only at serious cases, such as homicides.

Additionally, another new change involves geographic handling of cases.  The types of crimes that take place in West Philadelphia are a tad bit different than those that take place in Center City or South Philly.  The greatest amount of car thefts in the city takes place in Northeast Philly (specifically Franklin Mills).  So, as District Attorney Williams pointed out, it makes sense to have DAs and officers develop an expertise in handling certain types of cases in specific neighborhoods.

It remains to be seen whether these changes to the system will result in greater enforcement of laws and less crime in the long run.  There are many other changes that need to occur, including the removal of the perception among many residents that “snitching” is bad.  Regardless, these steps appear to be in the right direction.

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