Two days after a weekend in which gun violence claimed six lives, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams stopped by a Nicetown church to speak to residents about the city’s biggest and most persistent crime problem.
Though Tuesday night’s “Northwest Town Hall” meeting wasn’t scheduled in response to the cluster of murders — it had been postponed in late November — Williams’ decision to focus on gun violence likely didn’t surprise anyone seated inside Triumph Baptist Church.
As of the start of the meeting, there were 311 murders in the city in 2012. One, on Sunday, occurred about a block away from Triumph’s Hunting Park Avenue doors.
“There are far too many street corners that are littered with teddy bears and candles,” said Williams.
Focus on crime-prevention efforts
Much of the evening centered on the DA office’s efforts aimed at crime prevention and reducing recidivism, or repeat offenses. Williams said that is part of changing the “paradigm of what it means to be an American prosecutor.”
“For years, whatever question was posted to a prosecutor, the answer was more jail time, more prisons, more people under the prisons,” said Williams. “But the reality is, what’s more important is for us to prevent crime.”
To be sure, the equation involves cracking down on individuals and areas prone to crime.
In addressing gun violence, Williams pointed to efforts like the city’s GunStat program which — launched in February — identifies violent and repeat offenders in particularly problematic areas with the goal of stopping them before gunfire erupts again.
If one of those individuals is arrested, the DA’s office works to prosecute them off the streets.
The program currently operates in small swaths of North Philadelphia and Kensington.
Illegal gun possession a concern
Williams said he is also focusing on individuals caught carrying a gun illegally.
Since late January, prosecutors have sought higher bail amounts (between $25,000 and $50,000) in cases where that charge is the most severe a defendant is facing.
Defendants must post 10 percent of that amount to stay out of jail as their case progresses. As a result of the initiative, 73 percent of relevant individuals have stayed in jail, said Williams.
He also wants to have offenders serve heftier sentences in those cases.
“We know people are going to be selling drugs and doing some stupid stuff. We’re going to deal with that,” he said. “I just don’t want you shooting people because when you’re shooting people a whole lot of innocent folks are getting shot too.”
Seeking public buy-in
Williams also discussed, however, that there is a community component to his prevention efforts.
“We need your help because we’re all in this together,” he said.
Williams noted that 80 percent of the city’s gun violence is caused by people who sell narcotics, usually involving individuals who settle arguments with bullets. Cutting off the flow of customers, in a supply-and-demand sense, can help.
“If you want to help me reduce crime, I need you to help your family members, your friends, relatives, co-workers, that are addicted, help get them into rehab,” Williams said. “That really has a great impact.”
Reaction from residents
At least a couple attendees accepted Williams’ plea.
Nikki Bagby, who currently lives in Germantown, was a longtime Nicetown resident. She said as a result of a community effort, four nuisance properties were shut down near her home.
“It’s up to us to make some of our neighborhoods secure,” she said.
The key, she said, is for people to take ownership of their communities; residents cannot be afraid to speak up, and out, when unwanted activities or individuals become part of them.
North Philadelphia resident Evan Figueroa works with ex-offenders through the Philadelphia Recovery Community Center. He echoed Bagby’s sentiments, saying that residents can’t just stew in their frustration when it comes to tackling crime.
“If we want to see change in Philadelphia,” he said, “we have to make the change.”