Giving residents a voice in the fight against gun violence

A group advocating for the elimination of gun violence is looking for a few good citizens.

Courtwatch is a new program seeking to bring residents of communities affected by gun-related crimes into courtrooms. An initiative of CeaseFirePA, Courtwatch is designed to harness the testimony of residents who speak about the impact that gun crimes have on their community.

In collaboration with prosecutors, participating residents testify in court, with the intent of providing judges with additional testimony during sentencing.

Orla Treacy, director of operations for CeaseFirePA, recently spoke before the East Falls Community Council, and sought the participation of neighbors in the program.

“The most effective way to let judges know that you care about this kind of crime on your streets is to show up in court,” she said.

Bridging a gap in the city 

According to Treacy, Courtwatch seeks to bridge the gap caused by the shuttering of the Philadelphia Gun Court, a specialized court that dealt with crimes related to illegal gun possession. Established in 2005, the court processed approximately 800 defendants annually until its cessation in 2011, which the Inquirer reported was due to the loss of state funding.

As GunCourt was being dismantled, Courtwatch began: the program traces its origins to September of 2011, almost a decade after its parent organization – CeaseFirePA – was founded in 2002.

With cooperation from the District Attorney’s office, Courtwatch was described by Treacy as attempting to inform judges that gun crimes are not victimless crimes. This is done by bringing neighborhood residents to court to speak about the impacts of violent crime, often counterbalancing character testimony from the relatives of defendants.

Treacy noted that during a trial, the only people typically found in the courtroom are the defendants, families, and court personnel, with no one to speak to the broader aspects of the effects of crime.

“Gun crime is a huge detriment to the city of Philadelphia,” she said, noting that besides the direct economic and safety implications, there’s a larger perception of the occurrence of crime in the city to be considered. 

Community participation 

Courtwatch works in the following manner: after sentencing information is available, Courtwatch staff notifies residents from the police district in which the crime was committed, who then volunteer to participate.

Relative to East Falls, residents could be asked to speak at trials that are committed within the geographically and demographically vast 39th Police District. 

Given the size, residents might not personally know the alleged criminal, but Treacy said that the impacts from a crime occurring even five minutes away can cause residents to feel unsafe in their homes.

Residents are then asked to meet Courtwatch representatives at the Criminal Justice Center in Center City on the court date, and are accompanied to the courtroom, where the judge is informed of the presence of community members wishing to testify.

While Treacy said that her organization tries to notify potential participants as far in advance as possible, the rescheduling of cases can result in minimal notification time. She added that if residents or business owner can’t attend court, a letter can be sent to a judge for consideration at sentencing.

Past cases 

Treacy said that the program has been a “huge success” so far, with over 100 residents participating in Courtwatch citywide since its implementation.

Among the crowing achievements of the program was when Courtwatch brought dozens of community members to appear in the sentencing of an alleged drug dealer who shot two children in South Philadelphia while attempting to fire upon another individual.

Kevin Pickard, the shooter, was subsequently sentenced to 17 to 34 years after a judge considered “the gravity of [his] actions and the ‘severe and life-altering’ impact they had on his victims,” wrote the Daily News in August of 2012.

As for defense attorneys? “They’re not thrilled about it,” said Treacy.

Charles Cunningham, spokesperson for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said that while he was not able to offer a definitive stance on Courtwatch, many aspects are taken into consideration during sentencing. While citing a need to protect the public, Cunningham also observed that the eventual release of defendants must be taken into consideration.

“We need to fashion a sentence so that they can improve their lives following release,” he said, asking that sentences reflect the perspective of the defendant.

“There’s usually a story behind every defendant,” said Cunningham. “They may be victims their entire life,” he added, expressing concerns about taking away the rights of an individual “who is raised by the street.”

While there is an almost inevitable conflict between prosecution and defense, Treacy was insistent that one conflict is not applicable to her organization: CeaseFirePA and Courtwatch are not anti-gun. Rather, they are against illegal ownership of guns and their use in illicit acts.

East Falls Town Watch territory 

While receiving a favorable response from EFCC leaders and membership at their recent public meeting, EFCC will be deferring any participation in the notification process to their counterparts in the East Falls Town Watch.

“Courtwatch fits more into EFTW’s area of responsibility than the EFCC,” said Tom Sauerman, president of the EFCC.

Members of EFTW said that the information will be reviewed at an upcoming meeting. Julie Camburn, editor of The Fallser, offered her paper’s assistance in publishing information about upcoming trials.

But while the occurrence of gun crimes in East Falls itself is minimal, Treacy said that neighbors are encouraged to adopt a proactive stance, in order to discourage such acts from their neighborhood and lend support to nearby areas that may be more affected by violent crime.

“East Falls is a fantastic neighborhood,” Treacy observed. “It’s a very vibrant community, but no area is untouched by someone carrying a gun illegally.”

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