In quest to fund Philly DA’s office, don’t cut programs that work

    The Philadelphia district attorney has been criticized for its spending, yet Seth Williams himself has testified that his office was one of the most underfunded in the country. How much is actually budgeted to the office? And when so many programs in Philadelphia are experiencing cuts, how many millions of dollars are enough to fight crime?

    The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.

    In November 2012, Isaiah Thompson wrote a piece for the Philadelphia City Paper, “How the Philly DA office spends millions of dollars is a mystery,” about the lack of transparency around money raised from the sale of forfeited assets linked to crimes. Six months later in April 2013 the district attorney himself, Seth Williams, was testifying in front of Philadelphia City Council, saying his office was one of the most underfunded in the country.

    How much is actually budgeted to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office? And when so many programs in Philadelphia are experiencing budget cuts, like the school system, how many millions of dollars are enough to prosecute criminals and prevent crime?

    Budget crises are not unique to Philadelphia. In 2010, it was widely reported that the Bronx District Attorney’s office would need to lay off a large number of staff following reductions in their budget. The decision resulted in overworked prosecutors, some of the worst conviction rates, and exorbitant costs over time.

    In Michigan, the Wayne County District Attorney’s office, the only DA in the country that receives less funding than Philadelphia, has sued the county over lack of funding, and their prosecutors have now been instructed to simply not report to work for certain trials.

    Is this where Philadelphia is headed? Could we become like the Bronx and not follow through on nearly one-quarter of all prosecutions? Could our system fail to enforce accountability, as is happening in Wayne County (which encompasses Detroit), because the DA office cannot afford to have prosecutors in court?

    Hard numbers

    “We actually had more homicides in Philadelphia last year caused by handguns than all five boroughs of New York,” Williams reported at his City Council hearing in April.

    When I spoke with him on May 20, the day before the primary election, he said Mayor Nutter still had not communicated with him and that City Council’s support keeps him optimistic, but he knows the reality his office faces. Even with the extra $2.7 million he is requesting, his office will still be underfunded — and preventive programs and alternative sentencing programs will be sacrificed, not prosecutions.

    One of Williams’ major personal and professional endeavors is to prevent future crime. Take, for instance, his Second Chance Foundation, which funds programs that keep juvenile offenders from returning to the prison system, and his truancy diversion programs that mean to reduce the future prison population.

    “High school drop-outs are the majority of people in state prisons,” Williams noted.

    The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office has been allocated just over $31 million for the coming fiscal year. As a comparison, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office works with about $300 million dollars more. That amounts to an estimated $1,700 budgeted to prosecutors in Philadelphia for each incidence of violent crime. Los Angeles is estimated to spend $6,430 — more than three times as much. In Wayne County, Mich., it’s $1,344.

    How does this transfer to actual cases? As one example, according to Melissa Boyers Bluestein, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, “Private DNA testing costs about $1,200 for a single test of an unknown sample and $750 for the test of a known sample.” 

    In 2011, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office reported using DNA testing in about 40 percent of cases. While they ahve not said how much they spend on testing, just a fraction of the private rate would cut deeply into each prosecution.

    Williams stated in his City Council testimony that his office is working with technology from the 1990s, and that while Mayor Nutter has proposed to increase funding for the Office of Innovation and Technology by almost 150 percent, none of that money will go toward modernizing technologies related to prosecuting crimes.

    Budget solutions?

    Danny Alvarez, Republican candidate for Philadelphia District Attorney, says on his website that he would address budget issues by making changes to staff. For him, that would start with eliminating an “excessive security detail [and] Director of Employee Enrichment.” But firing five or six people who make under $100,000 would not relieve even 3 percent of the current budget. As well, some of these “excessive” positions have already been reduced.

    When Williams first came into office, a threat assessment advised him to have a staff of eight security officers, with four being with him at all times. He opted for half of that.

    And Williams says he sees the director of employee enrichment, and positions related to community outreach, as integral to his office because they encourage professional development of employees and work to rebuild trust in a justice system that has long been flawed in Philadelphia.

    When the verdict in the Kermitt Gosnell case came in, Alvarez said he supported pursuing the death penalty after Williams’ office offered Gosnell life in prison without chance of parole. The condition of this deal was that Gosnell would give up all future appeals. While the specific amount spent on appeals is difficult to quantify, pursuit of the death penalty would certainly have resulted in added expenses. Further costs would have also accrued during a protracted sentencing phase and countless expensive appeals — on top of the cost to the state of keeping Gosnell incarcerated for the rest of his life.

    Would a lower budget and extraneous pursuit of an individual’s idea of justice beyond reason and mercy put the Philadelphia district attorney’s office at the most severe disadvantage for fighting crime? This could well be the case.

    DA needs cash, no question

    If the Small Amounts of Marijuana (SAM) program is eliminated, it would back up the system with cases involving just a few grams of marijuana, many of which would never be prosecuted. Under SAM, offenders must pay a fine, but these if SAM ends the fines are not gains, because the cost to the city of court appearances is greater. At least the current district attorney is asking for funding for programs that will financially offset the budget increase he requests.

    Unfortunately, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office needs more money, no matter what. Where could the money come from? Certainly not working programs like SAM, the accelerated misdemeanor program or truancy diversion programs. In light of the murders of prosecutors in Texas this year, a security detail and some community engagement positions are definitely important facets of a district attorney’s office in any large city.

    In the City Paper article, Thompson cites $10.6 million in a single year (2011) made from forfeiture in Philadelphia. How these funds are split between police and prosecution programs has been a mystery, and accounting for that would assist the budget deficit.

    Spending money to upgrade technological capabilities and fostering further cooperation with local legal organizations, like effectively processing DNA requests when outside agencies like The Pennsylvania Innocence Project offer to pay the expenses, could help and would be a sign to the mayor and City Council of the dire nature of the situation. To think that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office would have to rely on non-profit defenders organizations to modernize their technological capabilities!

    Let us just hope that City Council and Mayor Nutter get the message so the Philadelphia DA’s office does not end up like their bretheren district attorneys in the Bronx and Detroit.

    Poet Aja Beech is a board member of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. 

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