District Attorney outlines four priorities at Northwood Civic meeting

Seth Williams says he doesn’t always wear his seat belt while driving.  Philadelphia’s District Attorney also says he was recently caught by a red-light ticket camera.

Lessons for enforcing driving in a town whose DA has broken a law or two can be implemented citywide. So Williams told 30 residents at Tuesday’s Northwood Civic Association meeting in the basement of St. James Church.

“It’s not the severity of punishment that changes behavior,” he said. “It’s the certainty of punishment.”

It was one of four hallmarks he gave for his developing administration, before taking questions from a community that has characterized itself in a quality-of-life war against blight and crime.

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The four moves are his (1) signature community-based prosecution, (2) focusing on illegal firearms, (3) bolstering the city’s charging unit and (4) following through with ‘consistency’ in judgment.

The four items play large part in his plan for his first 100 days in office, a watershed that ended in April, all of which would be tracked by a move for better record keeping.

First, with map in hand, Williams touted his initiative to reorganize the city’s 320 assistant district attorneys according to geography — creating something like police patrolling districts.

It’s a move to create a class of city prosecutors who become intimately familiar with the parts of Philadelphia they represent. It’s also a move he’s had for some time, first proposing it in 2005 [PDF] while running against his legendary predecessor Lynne Abraham, returning to it during the 2009 campaign [PDF] and calling for it since coming to office in January — and in other civic meetings across the city.

Last night, Williams spoke of hoping to transition into the new configuration this fall or by early January at the latest. Williams has already named Mark Gilson, a homicide prosecutor with a quarter century of experience and a Northeast native, to head up the proposed Northeast prosecuting division.

Below, Williams speaks to the Northwood Civic Association, speaking about community-based prosecution.

Next, Williams focused on why harshly prosecuting those involved in trade of illegal handguns needs to be a priority. He said not a single gun homicide involved a legally-licensed firearm in the last four years. Illegal weapons are being used to kill.

The retrieval of illegal handguns was a staple of Williams’s campaign.

Below, Williams talks about the importance of retrieving illegal handguns.

Third, Williams described why tripling the size of the district attorney’s charging unit will increase the city’s conviction rate and reduce waste and time lost, a move he cited immediately after being sworn into office earlier this year.

During Abraham’s tenure, Williams said just five employees outlined the charges the office would pursue for the some 75,000 people arrested annually in Philadelphia. Those five were undermanned, untrained and unprepared to make the right decisions about what crimes could be likely proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

That resulted in many missed opportunities and wasted effort on charges unlikely to be found accurate.

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Finally, Williams spoke about needing to create a sense of consistency and ‘certainty’ in the approach and disbursement of justice in the City of Philadelphia. That means pursuing the important, dangerous crimes with tough yet fair charges in an expected fashion, he said.

“If you’re training a dog,” he said, “you don’t have to break its leg, you just need to move quick and certain and consistently.”

Williams received a handful of questions after speaking before the close of the meeting. They all revolved around concerns from Northwood residents about their minor property crime devolving into more violent and drug-based trends.

One woman fought back tears while describing the fear she had for a neighbor on the 4700-block of Horrocks Street. Williams encouraged all residents to consistently use his public nuisance task force by calling 215-686-5858.

“But first,” Williams said, “let me give her a hug.”

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