Philadelphia DA Williams: “I want to have the right people in prison.”

One West Philadelphia shooting victim had to collect his own evidence, picking up shell casings and taking photographs because detectives were unavailable, according to Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams

Williams focused on gun violence while speaking on “The State of Crime in Philadelphia” Wednesday night at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Williams cited insufficient resources in detective divisions among key obstacles to getting convictions in gun cases, as well as uncooperative witnesses, witness intimidation and retaliation.

Rigid court procedures were also impediments, according to Williams, adding that “many rules are not victim-focused,” which “in many ways does not allow for justice.”

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams discusses “The State of Crime in Philadelphia” Wednesday night at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Photograph by Jim MacMillan

The District Attorney’s office prosecutes approximately 70,000 cases each year with a staff of 600 and a $32 million budget, which Williams says is one of the lowest among major U.S. cities.

In 2011, 324 people were murdered in Philadelphia and 265 of them were killed with firearms, according to Williams.

Altogether, he says there were 1,421 shooting victims — averaging about 4.5 shootings per day — as well as 3,601 reported gunpoint robberies and 2,529 aggravated assaults involving firearms.

So far in 2012, nearly 85% of Philadelphia homicides were committed with firearms, Williams said.

To face the challenge with limited resources, Williams advocates being “smart on crime,” adding that the “role of the D.A. should be crime prevention… not just prosecution.”

His strategy includes targeting “worst offenders” because “five percent of criminals commit 60 percent of the crimes,” according to Williams.

Williams grew up in the Cobbs Creek section of Philadelphia, where he says a “small percentage” of people are “making life a living hell” for residents.

Next, Williams sketched a Venn diagram, estimating the intersection of people “likely to get shot” and “likely to do the shooting” at 85 percent.

One solution, Williams said, is “community based prosecution,” through which Assistant District Attorneys have been “assigned geographically… because crime takes place geographically.”

Earlier this year, the city initiated the GunStat program, which Williams says uses data to prioritize offenders with a three-step process: Locating geographic hotspots, identifying offenders in those areas, and identifying criminal organizations.

Next, authorities take action to get the most dangerous criminals off the street.

GunStat is now operational in two police districts, with captains leading ten-member working groups, including representatives from intelligence units, narcotics, probation, the District Attorney’s office and more, according to Williams.

Since launching GunStat last spring, Williams says that the targeted areas have shown a 22 percent reduction in gun violence.

He says that police are also “mining Facebook” and finding defendants “running their mouth” and “bragging about who they shot.”

Williams attributes this year’s ten percent increase in Philadelphia homicides to additional factors.

First, Williams noted that Philadelphia’s weather was unusually warm in January — when the city suffered an unusually high rate of more than one murder per day — and attributed both aberrations to what he called the “ecology of crime.”

But easy access to guns through straw purchases continues to fuel the problem, Williams said. Straw purchases talk place when criminals — who have lost their right to own guns — pay others to make purchases for them in gun stores.

Williams wants state lawmakers to require mandatory reporting of lost or stolen guns to reduce straw purchases, and says he would also like to see mandatory one-year sentences for illegal gun possession, even when there is no shooting.

Williams also criticized mass incarceration, saying that prisons offered a “PhD in thuggery and violence,” adding that prisoners “can’t get a job” when released, and noting a 70% recidivism rate, which he said comes as a cost of $40 thousand per year for each prisoner.

Ultimately, Williams looks to economics, education and public health for solutions, as well as public safety, but says that prisoners approaching reentry need diversionary programs offering job skills, vocational skills and more.

For this reason, Williams initiated the SAM program, reducing the penalty for possessing a small amount of marijuana to just a $200 fine, adding that “I want to have the right people in prison.”


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