District Attorney Lynne Abraham has come a long way in the Philadelphia legal system since graduating from Temple School of Law in 1965. She served as assistant district attorney in the early 1970s, as judge of the Municipal Court of Philadelphia in the late 70s and judge of the Court of Common Pleas from 1980 until 1991.
Throughout her career she has largely made her alma mater proud and she should have an easy ride to victory in May’s democratic primary due to her widespread political support and deep campaign war chest. Abraham is undoubtedly qualified to continue her tenure.
But that doesn’t mean she should.
Seth Williams, also an experienced prosecutor – he was a high-ranking official of the Municipal Court Unit and head of the Repeat Offenders Unit – knows Abraham well and is now challenging her for the spot. Williams was assistant district attorney before he left in 2003 because, according to his Web site, he was “discouraged by a management style that stifles innovation and frustrates morale.” He doesn’t have much political clout or a high-profile name, but he is bringing fresh ideas to an office in desperate need of help.
Williams deserves to be noticed because he is proposing community-based prosecution, a program that demands more interaction between all those involved in legal proceedings.
Currently, assistant district attorneys absorb cases from all over the city and don’t have a consistent relationship with other prosecutors in their area. This is called horizontal organization. For example, an assistant district attorney from Northeast Philadelphia can receive a case from a detective in South Philly. Chances are this ADA is relatively unfamiliar with what goes on in South Philadelphia.
But they still need to learn the facts of the cases before funneling them off to higher-ranking ADAs, who must take the cases to trial. This essentially repeats a process of hasty preparation and weak understanding.
Therefore, according to Williams’ Web site, 52 percent of all felonies are thrown out due to “lack of prosecution,” largely because of deficiencies in the system.
Williams is proposing vertical, community-based prosecution, which means cases will be tried by detectives and ADAs who are divided by sections of the city. These teams will work together throughout the entire legal process and will be able to cultivate relationships within their assigned neighborhood. As supporters of this plan point out, needs vary between different sections of the city, so if ADAs consistently deal with a specific community they will be better able to identity and deal with its unique problems.
Last week, Williams secured an endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police. Though it won’t help him much politically, it speaks volumes for the respect his plan is receiving.
“This is huge,” Williams said in a Daily News article. “These are the people who know the criminal-justice system best, and they know the system is broken.”
Despite Abraham’s history and qualifications, in a city riddled with violence, Williams may be the person best suited to help the district attorney’s office begin the process of solving something.