Budget Testimony of Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams Before Philadelphia City Council

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Let me take you back to 2009. The Philadelphia Inquirer published its groundbreaking series Justice Delayed, Denied, Dismissed, which analyzed the criminal justice system in Philadelphia. The series made many conclusions that were startling to some, not surprising to those who worked in the system on a daily basis, yet were disconcerting to just about everyone. Among the conclusions in this series were that two in three people accused of violent crimes walk free on all charges, only one in ten defendants in gun-assault cases is found guilty of that charge, and one in five violent crime prosecutions ends in a felony conviction.

I was one of those who was not surprised with what the authors of the series had reported.   Indeed, my campaign echoed many of the themes in this series. I vowed, if elected, that I would reform our criminal justice system by making it more efficient, fairer, more focused on violent and repeat offenders, and smarter by relying on more evidence-based practices.

Today, I would like to tell part of the story of how far we have come, how we have meaningfully transformed the criminal justice system in Philadelphia, how we have collaborated, how much more we have to do, but unfortunately how my office has not received anything close to adequate funding.   Every other public safety entity has received far greater general fund appropriation increases since FY 2008. You and I have fought together to obtain the modest increases I have thus far received, and for that I am grateful. But the status quo is simply unacceptable.

So let’s start by talking about our wonderful successes. Five and a half years since the publication of the article in the Inquirer, it is with a great sense of pride that I report that we have made transformational improvements in the way we handle and dispose of cases. Our office has been performing better and more efficiently, I believe, than ever before. We have made it a priority to divert appropriate offenders out of the criminal justice system and ensure that they participate in the right programs that will help them stay out of trouble in the future. In doing so, we have been able to focus more of our energy and resources on holding the most dangerous offenders accountable, implementing trailblazing initiatives like Focused Deterrence, and hastening the speed at which cases are resolved.

We have continually improved and strengthened our charging unit.

“Smart on Crime” is a term I use a lot. It is not merely a glib catch-phrase. It represents my approach as District Attorney and what I expect of the outstanding men and women of my office. At the core of being smart on crime has been the system changes I made to our Charging Unit. Unlike in the past, our Charging Unit is staffed with strong, experienced prosecutors, who have an intimate working knowledge of the law. We have raised the bar on the evidence we require in order to go forward with responsible charging decisions. This also means that the attorneys I ask to serve in my Charging Unit are those with significant trial experience and who, otherwise, would be handling the more complicated criminal cases in my office. I trust them to make the right decisions.

We make our charging decisions based on what we can prove, not what we wish we could prove: Between 2009 and 2014, of the 10 most common lead charges, such as possession of controlled substances, DUI, and simple assault, (which represent 90 percent of all our charges), the total number of charges decreased by approximately 7,000. That is a significant and meaningful reduction. When we weed out weak or questionable cases, it allows us to focus our limited resources in the right places and go hard after the most dangerous criminals.

We have accelerated the time it takes to move cases through the system.

Delays have been reduced, and cases are resolved faster: Between 2009 and 2014, the average time for misdemeanors to be disposed of was reduced by more than 2 months –from approximately 7 months to approximately 4.5 months. This means less backlog for courts, swift justice for defendants, and quicker relief for victims.

We also continue to offer meaningful plea options at the earliest possible moment in the criminal justice process through the use of SMART Rooms. SMART rooms provide the opportunity to reach an early plea agreement, which prevents many cases from even going to trial. Through the use of this tool, we are ensuring both a more efficient system, as well integrity in our plea offers. Nearly 4,300 cases in 2014 were resolved in our SMART Rooms. About a quarter of Common Pleas Court matters are now resolved in our SMART Rooms. This has provided extraordinary fiscal and administrative relief for the criminal justice system in Philadelphia, but still requires a significant amount of work from our staff.

When we began the diversion programs and the SMART rooms, we had grant funding to hire and maintain staff. In fact, in the last year where we had such funding, we had more than $500,000 to cover salaries. We are no longer eligible for grant funding for our pretrial programs because the Department of Justice informed us that they provide funding to implement new and innovative programs—not for recurring expenses—and if the programs are successful the funding should be maintained by the City. Now that we are in the fifth year of these programs, they are no longer new and innovative, and the salaries of those that staff them are considered a recurring expense. By every measure, they have been a resounding success and have transformed the criminal justice system in Philadelphia. But to date, the City has not made up for the loss of these funds, even though in maintaining these programs, we have helped create a fairer justice system and saved the City hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.

We have reshaped the criminal justice system by diverting non-violent offenders.

Diverting lower-level non-violent offenders is necessary. Locking these individuals up only makes them more likely to commit new crimes when they get out because their underlying criminogenic needs are not addressed, and they are locked up with far more dangerous offenders who are terrible influences. Diverting these offenders and providing the appropriate programming means that their chances of committing new crimes is significantly decreased. Ultimately, that means less crime, fewer cases, and fewer incarcerated individuals.

The breadth of our diversionary programs is enormous, with nearly 15 different programs. In 2014, more than 10,000 cases were referred to diversionary programs. Of those 10,000 cases, nearly 9,900 misdemeanor cases were referred to diversionary programs; in that same year nearly 5,900 misdemeanor cases already referred to diversionary programs were successfully completed.

One of our more robust programs, the Accelerated Misdemeanor Program (AMP) saw an increase of cases by 9 percent between 2013 and 2014, even though the total number of misdemeanors charged generally throughout Philadelphia during that same time period went down 12.5 percent.

In 2014, we diverted more than 1,300 felonies to intermediate punishment and drug treatment courts. These individuals need treatment. Otherwise they will continue to commit new crimes because their underlying addiction will have been left unabated.

Diversion saves the City money. Our policies have led to less incarceration, fewer continuances, fewer court appearances, fewer trials, fewer police officers who are required to appear and testify, and fewer court appointed counsel, who have to put in significant resources in defending each case. The Mayor has rightly touted that the prison population is down about 2,000 from when he first took office. My office, working with the administration, city council, and the other justice partners, has clearly played a vital part in this tremendous decrease.

But while the City saves dollars from these programs, my office actually spends more time, effort and personnel on diversionary programs than if we had merely tried the underlying cases, which are often misdemeanors. The fundamental point of diversion is ensuring that a district attorney’s office spends time screening the cases and then helping to ensure that offenders comply with the requirements of the programs. If offenders do not comply, it is our staff’s duty to address what sanctions may be appropriate or what other steps should be taken to better ensure the offender will not commit new crimes. In many cases, we have to collaborate with other agencies, gather information, and work to help ensure the offender’s criminogenic needs are addressed.

Consider also that there are nearly 90 individuals in my office – both attorneys and support staff – that work in the pre-trial unit, the unit dedicated to diversion, early plea offers, and alternatives to incarceration. That is a real and meaningful investment in being smart on crime.

Unfortunately, the proposed budget does not reflect the tremendous time and money my office has invested to administer and sustain these programs.

It is also noteworthy that other innovative and smart on crime efforts I have begun in the office, such as Investigating Grand Juries and my Conviction Review Unit, require intensive staff time.

Fewer cases are being dismissed and the most dangerous of offenders are being brought to justice.

The people of my office work tirelessly, with the limited resources we have, to try and ensure that the most violent offenders in our city are punished to the fullest extent to the law. Our felony held-for-court rate has dramatically increased from 59 percent in 2009 to 72 percent in 2014.   During this time period, the held-for-court rates for illegal firearms possession increased from 77 percent to 85 percent; robberies increased from 47 percent to 64 percent. And rapes, which held-for-court rates hovered below 70 percent in 2010 and 2011 are now at 75 percent.

Most notably, our felony conviction rate has significantly increased. Consider that in 2009, the felony conviction rate was just 43 percent. In 2014, that crucial figure was 61 percent. During this time period, the conviction rate for illegal firearms possession increased from 53 percent to 64 percent; robberies from merely 28 percent to 51 percent; and rape from 52 percent to 72 percent.

Year by year, our office has saved the city money, improved the safety of our streets, curbed corruption, and more, all while receiving nominal funds from the city. Every year, we try to make the point that we will have significant difficulty sustaining these performances with a limited budget, but I also want to focus your attention on the many other ways we could be improving our criminal justice system and making our streets safer if we had more appropriated funds. We don’t want to just sustain our current performance; we want to have the opportunity to grow and make Philadelphia the safest city in the country.

Consider some of the other projects we have undertaken recently. In August 2014, we helped launch a state re-entry court in conjunction with the State Board of Probation and Parole. Judge Woods-Skipper presides over this court, where the purpose is to provide more intensive case management and supervision for state-sentenced offenders returning to Philadelphia. An additional program launched in July 2014 is the MENTOR program. In this program, conceptualized and launched by Judge Michael Erdos, we use mentors instead of probation case managers to work with certain individuals who are on probation. We assisted in training over 40 mentors at our training program in July 2014. We have taken on these tasks at our own cost because we believe they are worth it. These programs are still evolving, but demonstrate what good things can happen if there is the vision, will, ability and desire to make meaningful improvements.

Our Efforts Have Yielded Prison Population Decreases

Consider also that the City recently announced the closure of two overflow prisons in Northeast and West Philadelphia because the drop in minimum-security inmates was so significant. The closure of the West Philadelphia prison will save the city thousands of dollars a month alone in rent, staffing, and maintenance costs. Without the implementation of our diversionary programs, these two facilities, which together can hold up to 292 inmates, would still be open. The Mayor himself has rightly touted that the prison population is down about 2,000 from when he first took office. My office, working with you, the administration, and the other justice partners, has clearly played a vital part in this tremendous decrease.

Focused Deterrence

Consider also one of our most successful strategies, Focused Deterrence:

For the better part of the past two years, members of my staff have dedicated hundreds, if not thousands, of hours to overcome gun violence in South Philadelphia through Focused Deterrence. Last year, this Council’s Committee on Public Safety had the opportunity to hear the specific details of the Focused Deterrence initiative, as well as success stories from individuals who took advantage of services through the interventions. Members of the Committee recognized, and commented on, the importance of such a program and expressed the need to sustain it. I can proudly say that my office’s commitment to this initiative has not waivered, despite receiving no budgetary increases to apportion to this cause.

One of the key components of Focused Deterrence is the “call-in,” where individuals identified as members of violent groups are brought face-to-face with a partnership of law enforcement and social service agencies and presented with two options: seek for help in changing your behavior and services will be made available to you, or take part in violent activities and see all members of your group face certain and serious consequences. In August 2014, we were able to get our message out again to members of 14 different groups who attend the “call-in.” The message of Focused Deterrence continues to be widely disseminated in South Philadelphia.

While these “call-ins” have had positive effects, we have still had to conduct several enforcement actions after we have determined that a shooting or homicide is group motivated. This requires even further time and financial sacrifice from our office, as well as the other partnering agencies. As a result of six shooting incidents attributed to gang members in 2014, six “enforcements” were initiated on those groups. Enforcements involve initiatives such as increased police presence in the group territory, heightened probation/parole conditions, and stiffer sentences on active cases.  As a result of the enforcements in 2014, 239 cases of active group members were specially assigned at our office. The Focused Deterrence members saw a 75% felony conviction rate due to the prioritization of the cases within the office.

We believe in order to see a decrease in violence and the program sustained, we also need to provide a way out, or an “off-ramp” from the criminal lifestyle and violence associated with group membership. In 2014, we had 31 group members receiving social assistance through the Social Services Coordinator, Reuben Jones. Last year, we made room in our already constricted budget to hire an outreach worker, Tyrique Glasgow, a South Philadelphia native, to partner with Mr. Jones. This is the type of priority we place on evidence-based, innovative solutions to the problem of violence we face in Philadelphia.

What We Need to Do Going Forward

There is still so much more to do. For one, we have to sustain our efforts. We have to continue to put the resources and time into our changing criminal justice system so that we don’t go back to the way it was. We have to address the mental health crisis that exists. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections reports that about 24 percent of Pennsylvania’s 49,062 inmates are receiving mental health treatment and about 4,000 inmates are characterized as having serious mental illness. Trying to house and rehabilitate seriously mentally ill inmates in prison facilities is dangerous for both the inmates and corrections staff. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United States has an average of 292 jail suicides a year. We also still struggle with meaningfully addressing witness intimidation. Gun violence is still at unacceptably high levels, and we have to continue to identify and implement meaningful solutions that will result in fewer shootings, injuries and deaths.

Additionally, it seems clear that additional resources from my office will be required for the City to fully comply with the recommendations of the recent COPS report on the use of deadly force by the Philadelphia Police Department. One of the report’s most important recommendations was that the time to investigate a police shooting must be reduced. As you may have noted, the report specifically commended my office for significantly speeding up our shooting investigations once we receive the case from the police department. We are confident we can do even more in this regard, which will be crucial in meeting your goal of implementing the report’s proposals. Members of my staff have had preliminary conversations with members of the Police Department’s command staff. But it is apparent that we cannot maintain these advances, let alone improve on them, unless we can devote additional personnel to these investigations, and thus funding to cover the salary costs of several experienced prosecutors.

The District Attorney’s Office Budget Yet Again is Woefully Inadequate

In terms of my office budget, the Mayor’s proposed budget is – once again – inadequate. At best, it flat-funds my office. Unfortunately, such flat-funding will hamper my ability to implement additional pro-active, smart-on-crime strategies, as well as to retain skilled assistant district attorneys who handle the most complex cases that require years of experience.

We continue to be underfunded as compared to other major cities. Of the largest 14 cities, Philadelphia ranks lowest in terms of funding per violent crime. Again, this is a dubious distinction. But the comparison is telling and illustrative of the budgetary concerns I have expressed since I took office.

Additionally, we have analyzed our budget over the last several years, and it is quite obvious that my office’s budget is too low. Every other agency or entity involved in the criminal justice system has been treated far better than the District Attorney’s Office.

First, consider that the amount of funding my office receives as a percentage of the City Budget has decreased since 2008. In FY 2008, the Office’s share of the City budget was .81002 percent. In FY 2015, the Office’s share was .75886 percent.  If the Office received the same .81002 percentage share in FY 2015, our budget would be $2.3 million higher.

Equally telling, the criminal justice/public safety budget has increased by 18.1 percent during this same time period. The District Attorney’s Office budget, however, has increased only by 9.3 percent, significantly below this level. Other criminal justice/public safety agencies have fared far better. During this same time period, the police share increased 22.7 percent; fire increased 15.8 percent; sheriff increased 19.7 percent; and prisons increased 10.3 percent. If my office received the 18.1 percent apportioned to the criminal justice/public safety budget in FY 2016, our budget would be nearly $2.8 million higher.

I think it is also important to correct the record regarding the representation of my office’s funding in the Mayor’s Five Year Financial and Strategic Plan. Those figures represent that my office experienced a 14.9 percent increase in all funds from FY 2008 to the FY 2015 current projection. The Plan erroneously relies on the $839,584 my office received in FY 2014 to take on the new responsibility of administering traffic court, responsibilities we did not previously have. Relying on this dollar amount overinflates any actual increase in my budget.

The figures also rely on forfeiture proceeds my office has received. There are three problems here. First, as a matter of law, the City is not permitted to rely on forfeiture proceeds in calculating my budget. Second, even if it were lawful to consider forfeiture funds, the City’s method of accounting for them is incorrect as it grossly over-calculated how much we actually received. The City’s calculations disregard the fact that the Police, in most instances, receive 60% of any forfeiture proceeds.

Third, the budget number listed in our FY 15 current projection and FY 16 proposed budget is $10 million – which is an authorization amount, not real money. The $10 million is an accounting tool that eliminates the need for multiple transfer ordinances to appropriate funds as they are realized.

Our actual forfeiture deposits have decreased between FY 2008 and FY 2014 by approximately 27 percent.

When the mistakes are corrected, it becomes apparent that our Office actually experienced an aggregate increase of only 8.4 percent in general and grant funding from FY 2008 to FY 2015. When the proposed FY 2016 budget is factored in, the aggregate increase from FY 2008 drops to only 7.7 percent, little more than half of the 14.9 percent figure stated in the City’s five-year plan, and significantly below the increase given to other criminal justice agencies.

Were forfeiture funds to be considered, the office has essentially experienced a budget decrease since FY 2008 because of the drop in forfeiture proceeds.

It is also very important that we discuss the District Attorney’s Office budget in comparison to that of the Public Defenders. Between FY 2008 and FY 2015, the Public Defender budget increased by at least 15 percent, more than double the increase of my office’s budget. I have no issues with providing increases to the Public Defenders. Defendants should have good representation, and helping to ensure that funding is appropriate is a good thing.

But it turns out that based on our caseload, we receive less money than the Defenders. Less money. For all the considerations about “parity,” it turns out that it is the District Attorney’s Office that needs parity.

How do we know this? My office handles virtually every criminal case. In Common Pleas Court, the Defenders defend less than half of these cases. My office budget does not reflect this reality, unfortunately. While the Public Defenders handle a significant number of cases at the time of the preliminary arraignment (requiring the smallest time commitment for staff resources), the percentage drops dramatically as cases progress through the criminal justice system.   In Common Pleas Court, it is estimated that the Defenders represent fewer than 50 percent of these cases. On appeal, they handle no more than 20 percent of these cases, while my office handles all of them.

There is more to the parity argument. The District Attorney’s Office budget cannot merely be compared against the Defender’s budget. In addition to the number of cases the Defender’s handle, a significant number of cases are handled by court-appointed counsel, attorneys who are paid with taxpayer dollars for their representation, worth millions of dollars. And I am not even including the cases we must defend against private counsel.

There is no blame here. This is a simple question of math and assessing proportions of caseloads that each entity handles. To work towards reaching true parity, Class 100 money for my office should be increased by no less than $1.25 million.

I think this is a modest but fair increase, given the fiscal challenges still facing the City, while taking into account our demonstrated need for additional funding to continue and expand the good work we are doing to make this City safer and the justice system fairer. Even with this proposed increase, the overall increase in my office budget from FY 2008 to present would still be less than the overall public safety budget during the same time period.

Every year I come here and, among other things, ask for more funding. Obviously this year is no different. The increases that my office has received are because of your efforts.   I know the efforts you have made on behalf of my office, and I deeply appreciate it.   And while I am rather stunned and frankly saddened by how little increase my office has received, I hope we can once again work together and find an appropriate resolution – in the budget that you will pass by the summer.   Too much is at stake to ignore what we need, or to push it off until the fall.

Collaboration is critically important. We have done so, and I believe we are all partners in keeping our communities safer. But collaboration is more than just a one-way street. For example, my office took on the role of administering Traffic Court. We were asked because our partners in the criminal justice system had confidence in our ability to improve the Court and bring in good supervisors and assistant district attorneys and other staff to run it. We did not seek Traffic Court, but we understand our responsibilities as stewards of justice. There is some irony to the fact that despite our willingness to take on new challenges and be a good partner, when it comes time to appropriate budgets, we do not necessarily see that good will and confidence translate to an acceptable appropriation amount.

Before I conclude, I want to note the tremendous work and dedication of my office – the assistant district attorneys, staff and detectives, who do tremendous work every day on behalf of the people of Philadelphia. Their dedication is extraordinary. Their caseloads are too high, their pay is too low, but they are the ones who every day fight for victims of crime and justice.

Thank you for your attention and your efforts. Without your collective leadership, we would not have been able to make so many remarkable changes to our criminal justice system.   Your partnerships, interest, and vision has benefitted the City and helped improve public safety. It is a pleasure to collaborate with you.

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For copies of the charts presented at the budget hearing please email Cameron Kline, Communications Director at cameron.kline@phila.gov.


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