Seth Williams

Living in "Hamsterdam"

Some of you may know I work in the office of City Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez. The Seventh Councilmanic District starts a few blocks above Girard Avenue and slices up along the west side of Frankford and then Kensington Avenue, neatly avoiding any meaningful concentration of wealth or gentrification (Northern Liberties, Temple, Fishtown). If you think there is something fancy that might be in the district, like a beer garden or coffee shop or condoized factory, it turns out to be on the other side of the line. Instead the district sweeps in the remnants of our industrial corridors and the poor, vibrant but brutalized communities who were left living in that tiny two-story factory housing after successive waves of flight.

I work on housing and land issues, with a subspeciality in the variety of ways deeds are forged or otherwise stolen, and those stolen houses sold, mostly to unsuspecting unsophisticated Spanish-speaking victims who just want somewhere affordable to live. I try to figure out how to keep a slumlord's 400+ properties in foreclosure from being turned over to speculators or abandonment. I field calls from people trying to legitimately buy vacant lots, for side yards to keep the dealers out, or because they're the dealers and want to control the block. The names on those deeds are often Jewish people who left sixty years ago and then died. Nothing's ever probated, and there's no way to legally get almost any of those lots to people who can secure and care for them.

There are a lot of vacant properties in Kensington - the aerial view on Google maps is a beautiful deep green - and the work involved in trying to navigate the broken city systems that deal with those properties, and to push policy reforms to unbreak those systems, it's endless (my boyfriend can tell you he has to fight to get me to stop thinking about lots so I can fall asleep). All that's another news story.

This post is about Philadelphia Weekly's new list of the 'top ten' drug corners in Philadelphia. The last list, in 2007, had corners that were scattered around the city. 2011's are all compounded in the same tiny wasted stretch of Kensington where you find all those lots I dream about: "from Lehigh to the south to Westmoreland, roughly a half-mile stretch, and from Kensington Avenue to N. Fifth Street, a distance just less than a mile." It's a blunt tool, picking ten drug corners based mostly on arrest frequency, but it captures something bigger and truer: I know all these blocks, and the 10 corners featured are surrounded by 10 and 10 and 10 more of the same. "No area of the city came close to Kensington and Fairhill in terms of the density and brazenness of the drug selling."

This is Hamsterdam.

But what does it mean to have a de facto Hamsterdam in Kensington when people, families, senior citizens, all still live there?

Mayor Nutter Can't Have It Both Ways on Immigration

Maria and Mayor Nutter

Mayor Nutter spoke at an immigrant rights rally at Welcome Park yesterday organized by the Pennsylvania chapter of the Reform Immigration for America campaign. The rally was intended to show that Philadelphia is a welcoming city to immigrants, in contrast to Arizona, where the anti-immigrant law SB1070 was implemented in part yesterday.

WHYY News reported that Mayor Nutter said he was excited by the decision of Judge Bolton to strike down key elements of Arizona’s immigration law.

Nutter got cheers from the assembled crowd when he said, “Immigration for some has become the new segregation in the United States, that's what’s really going on, people need to pay attention to what this is about.”

But what is really going on in Philadelphia? What is this really about?

Living with fear of the people you need to protect you: Immigrant communities respond to local collaboration with ICE

Our Stories Give Us Power: Guadalupe Hernandez from Center for Constitutional Rights on Vimeo.

We are still waiting on a decision whether the city will keep allowing ICE, the federal immigration enforcement agency, to access its arrest database, called PARS. (Dan wrote last week about how our DA, who got national exposure this weekend for his many other progressive ideas, may be the swing vote to change this destructive policy.)

A lot of the discussions about whether local law enforcement should assist with immigration enforcement work are pretty abstract. Some argue that once people are in the criminal justice system, they are fair game - even though being arrested doesn't mean you are guilty of any crime. And there are differing ideas and prejudices about what rights non-citizens have.

But all this is pretty academic. Immigration status is not binary ('legal,' 'illegal'). Some people are in the process of obtaining status, some families are mixed, sometimes names and arrest records get mixed or messed up.

In the real world, in Philadelphia's neighborhoods, different things become clear. In many situations, like fights and domestic incidents, people do get arrested but are never charged with a crime. Frequently even the victim or a witness can get pulled in, later released once the police work through language and other issues to figure out who the culprits really are. Victims - of theft, abuse - refuse to call police or make complaints when they think local law enforcement may be communicating with ICE.

I am hoping that the decision makers vote to end the contract to allow ICE to access the PARS database, and pull back from the broader 'Secure Communities' program. In order to effectively deal with crime, which is our local responsibility, we need to build the trust that these collaborations destroy.

The community groups Juntos, New Sanctuary Movement, and the Philadelphia Storytelling Project have created a series of testimonies showing the human consequences of these policy decisions.

And many of these groups have organized a community forum for this Sunday June 27, 2-4 pm at Annunciation B.V.M. Church at 10th and Dickinson in South Philadelphia, where people will come together to tell politicians and the city why to say no to PARS access and Secure Communities. Please come out and listen.

Positive Steps for our Justice System

Last week, Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative released a report on Philadelphia’s prison population. The report, “Philadelphia's Crowded, Costly Jails: The Search for Safe Solutions,” comes to some important conclusions, and I would encourage everyone to check it out.

As part of the release of the report, Pew and Penn Law had a really amazing event last week, examining the findings of the report. There was a panel that included Seth Williams, Everett Gillison, Michael Jacobson, Director of NYC’s Vera Institute of Justice and the Rev. Ernest McNear. And in the audience, audience, asking and answering questions were a pretty amazing array of people, from Ellen Greenlee, Pamela Dembe, the President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas and Seamus McCaffery, to Third Circuit Chief Judge, Ted McKee and Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla.

I believe the event was taped, and when I find a link I will put it up. It really was something to have a gathering of so many stakeholders and judges, that a submitted question from the audience comes from the Chief Judge of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

What was amazing was that there really was some very broad agreement the most important conclusion of the study:

One conclusion that emerges—and is shared by many in the city’s criminal justice system—is that the size of the population in the Philadelphia Prison System is largely within the power of policy makers to control and likely can be further reduced without jeopardizing public safety.

How can this be done? The report lists a number of important policies, which will take leadership in instituting, because they seem somewhat counterintuitive.

First, the report suggests that we simply may want to release a number of suspects on their own recognizance (without bail), as many other cities do. As the report notes, and Mr. Jacobson discussed, DC and New York release a higher number of people without bail, and yet, defendants appear for court at a higher rate.

Second, we should resist the temptation to throw people in jail for technical violations of their probation, and instead figure out some alternative punishment. As Mr. Jacobson again noted, when you defund your probation and parole systems, overworked officers simply do the easiest thing: throwing people in jail as soon as they see a violation. They are too busy to do anything else.

Third, divert non-violent people with addiction or mental health issues out of our prison systems.

All of these are easier said than done, especially when you tell a public that is already freaked over crime, that you are going to release more people, let more people out of jail without bail, have to build more day centers, etc. But, that is what leadership is about right? Again, I would encourage everyone to check out the report.

Then, yesterday, the Inquirer had a story about the DA’s efforts to modernize their data systems, and do things like actually track outcomes:

During her 18 years in office, District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham insisted she would not "do justice by the numbers." And the Philadelphia court system's administrator, David C. Lawrence, similarly said, "We're not in the research business."

That meant overall conviction rates for violent-crime cases in the Philadelphia courts were unknown - until The Inquirer drew on raw court data to report that nearly two-thirds of all defendants accused of violent crimes walked free of all charges.

Abraham's successor, District Attorney Seth Williams, has now obtained a $492,000 grant to equip his office with software that, for the first time, will be able to routinely produce conviction data.

Eventually, his office plans to make the results publicly available on what it says will be a greatly retooled office website.

As the article notes, it’s not just the ability to track conviction rates, but the reason for which those convictions potentially fail, and other important data.

Frankly, I agree with my friend Lynne Abraham in a sense: You cannot do justice purely by numbers. But, that sure doesn’t mean you shouldn’t collect the data, or that this is simply academically interesting (as David Lawrence suggests). Examining data will not only let prosecutors or defenders see where their respective success rates lie, but will also let all of us analyze the system for systemic failures, and even hidden abuses. On the police side of things, NYC is a constant example of why we should want data:

Blacks and Latinos were nine times as likely as whites to be stopped by the police in New York City in 2009, but, once stopped, were no more likely to be arrested. The more than 575,000 stops of people in the city, a record number of what are known in police parlance as “stop and frisks,” yielded 762 guns.

Of the reasons listed by the police for conducting the stops, one of those least commonly cited was the claim that the person fit the description of a suspect. The most common reason listed by the police was a category known as “furtive movements.”

Ah, the old furtive movement… Anyway, numbers matter. This doesn’t mean we ignore basic principles of our justice system. But, in 2010, we absolutely should be measuring outcomes, and collecting information that allows us to see the best and worst parts of our justice system.

And finally, in another piece of the article, there is a little snippet that a public interest lawyer anywhere can appreciate:

In the future, Philadelphia prosecutors should be able to update their cases, issuing subpoenas and swapping information with defense lawyers during pretrial discovery, with a few keystrokes.

Whether they are defenders, prosecutors, or civil legal aid attorneys- public interest attorneys are forced to spend times on things that shouldn’t take nearly as long as they do, because there is not the same level of support staff as at a firm, and because it is hard to justify big investments in technology. So, something like this just makes so much sense.

And, as Ellen Greenlee notes, it cannot be only the DA’s who make these advances:

Ellen Greenlee, director of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, which provides representation for those too poor to hire a lawyer, said her staff needed to upgrade its technology as well.

"We're still on paper," she said. "For the system to function at all, it's necessary for all the stakeholders to communicate. They can't let us lag behind."

Sorry for the rambling. Between seeing just about every stakeholder at the Pew event, for the release of a really hopeful report about reducing the number of people in jail, to the District Attorney actually tracking outcomes, the last week has been a hopeful one for our criminal justice system.

A new DA!

It's a new day, and we have a new DA (and a bit of comic relief, as Seth Williams and Michael Nutter sparred onstage at the Kimmel Center this morning over which of their slogans owed what to whom).

I sat in the front row and looked up as Pennsylvania's first African-American District Attorney was sworn into office.

He joins the police chief and the mayor in committing to stem what the mayor calls a genocide of young African-American men in Philadelphia: over 700 killed in the past three years.

The mayor charged Seth Williams with Frederick Douglass's words:

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Seth has family, friends, supporters, and his sense of what must be done, all propelling him. I hope that he will hold close his own words, that "justice without mercy is evil," and always struggle actively with the power that he now holds.

Congratulations, Seth! And congratulations to everyone who brought about this historic day.

Julio Maldonado Deported to Peru

Julio Maldonado was deported to Peru on Thursday, October 22, 2009, after arriving in the U.S. 38 years ago at the age of 3.

He and his cousin, Denis Calderon, had been victims of an attack based on their ethnicity in 1996. Julio was wrongfully convicted of aggravated assault, incarcerated for a total of 8 years, and then deported.

Untermeyer Believes There's No Racism in PA Justice System; Mum about Tooth Fairy & Santa Claus

Here's today's Elections 101 lesson: when some candidates are desperate, they'll say anything.

Hence Michael Untermeyer Republican for District Attorney (formerly, Democrat for Sheriff), unwilling to go gently into that good night, burns and raves:

There is no racial profiling regarding death penalty sentencing in Pennsylvania."

The PA judiciary, that pristine priesthood, blemished by racism?

Say it ain't so! So, facts be damned, Untermeyer did.

Thus, at a news conference outside the Constitution Center, state Sen. Anthony Williams, NAACP president J. Whyatt Mondesire and the Rev. Audrey Brunson, president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity stated the obvious common sense that most Philadelphians are evolved enough to understand:

Sen. Williams cited a 2003 study by a blue-ribbon commission that was appointed by the state Supreme Court to investigate race and gender issues in the criminal-justice system.

Will Seth Williams Help Stop the Wrongful Deportation of Julio Maldonado?

I've lived in Philly just over a year now, and for most of that time I've worked as a staff attorney for a local nonprofit helping immigrants and refugees stay in this country with their families. I have worked in the field for about three years and I've seen a lot of messed up things in that short time. Doing this work is a good way to develop a thick skin. But almost three months ago, I learned about a local case that made my jaw drop.

Julio Maldonado and his cousin Denis Calderon were victims of a racial attack in Northeast Philly in 1996. Julio had come to the U.S. at the age of three from Peru and had been a lawful permanent resident since age seven. He lived in New York and was visiting Denis's home in Philly. Denis's family was the first Latin@ family in the neighborhood.

Throwing away the key?

Representative Brendan Boyle's bill, introduced in early June, would largely end parole for repeat violent offenders. The bill was spurred by outrage over shootings of police officers, and has the support of the governor and Philadelphia's likely next DA, Seth Williams.

There's an essential logic at the heart of the bill: if someone is in jail, he or she can't commit crimes outside. That logic can be extended indefinitely: the longer someone is in jail...

But you can't imprison a person forever because they may commit future crimes. (The NY Times has explored the problems with attempts to indefinitely detain sex offenders in a disturbing series of articles.) Inevitably the criminal justice system has to draw a line as to when a term of imprisonment will end. This bill can't end the risk that a police officer will be killed by someone who has been released from prison unless no one is released from prison (another bit of obvious logic).

There are several lines of criticism of this bill: it will cost a lot at a time when we are looking to cut the prison costs that have ballooned in recent decades, it is unjust and possibly unconstitutional to count juvenile crimes when those convictions did not include the same procedural protections afforded to adults.

But it seems to me that the problem the bill responds to--a breakdown in the parole system whereby people who still pose great risk to others are released--is not fixed at all by the bill. My guess is that Seth Williams supports the bill because it seems to devote prison resources to people who--because of their demonstrated criminal histories--need to be there the most, thus shifting those limited resources away from first time or low level drug criminals who don't really need to be in jail.

I'm not sure that the blunt tool of Rep. Boyle's bill is the way to do this. We already have a multiple-strikes rule that sets sentencing parameters for repeat violent offenders: this could be tweaked if we decide terms should in fact be longer (though, as noted, you have to face the fact of release at some point and can't use a bill like this to create political cover forever). And it seems more productive to look hard at the parole system to ensure that parole is only granted where there is both evidence of rehabilitation and a lack of factors in a person's criminal history that demonstrate continued risk.

To do otherwise--to simply remove the possibility of parole--is to abandon further the rehabilitative purpose of imprisonment and instead simply and literally embrace warehousing.

Board of Ethics sues Dan McCaffery, Reaches Agreement with Seth Williams

This is not the press you want before election day:

The Philadelphia Board of Ethics just hit Dan McCaffery's campaign for District Attorney with a lawsuit, claiming he and his treasurer "deliberately violated the city's campaign finance law" by taking in too much political action committee money in 2008 and misstating the amount the campaign took in from a PAC run by his law firm.

So, the board alleges that McCaffery took too much money from PACs in 2008. There is a $100,000 dollar limit, and he artificially split a donation from his own firms PAC to get around that. And now he is being sued over it. Being sued is not the press you want pre-election day, so I suspect you will see a settlement soon enough. Frankly, it is strange that even got this far. Do you really want a lawsuit saying you are deliberately violating the law 7 days before an election?

Then, the board announced that they reached an agreement with Seth Williams over sloppy bookkeeping from last year. They fined him $3,750, and noted that he subsequently 'unsloppified,' and had cooperated with the board. Not the best press either, but, it is also the same thing we knew. Sloppy bookkeeping in 2008 that has since been fixed.

From a horse race perspective, what is most interesting to me is how much freaking money McCaffery has raised from PACs. Just look, for example, at how much money he received as a result of John Dougherty shaking the electricians tree:

IBEW Local 351 Pennsylvania PAC Fund, Hammonton, NJ 08037, 03/27/2009 $10000.00
IBEW COPE, washington, DC 20001, 04/02/2009 $2500.00
Local IBEW 98 Committee on Political Education, phila, PA 19130, 04/02/2009 $10000.00
IBEW Local 743 political Education Find, reading, PA 19608, 04/01/2009 $5000.00
IBEW COPE International, Washington, DC 20001, 04/30/2009 $10000.00
Local 98 IBEW Cope, 09/04/2008, $10,000.00
IBEW Cope, 09/22/2008, $1,500.00
Philadelphia Phuture PAC, Date 12/31/2008, $5,000.00

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with a union spending money on a campaign. But, what it shows is kind of instructive when you compare Dan McCaffery's and Seth's campaign reports.

McCaffery raised $230,000 this calendar year. All of his donations are listed in seven pages, because most of the money came in big checks from building trades PACs.

Seth raised basically the same amount, about $250,000. His donations take up 26 pages. Why? Because while he certainly got some big checks, he is relying on scads of smaller dollar donors.

Ask yourself who is better positioned? Someone with lots of individuals donating money, or someone with big checks directed by a couple of people?

Brett Mandel, Judicial Slate Fill Out Philly For Change Reform Ticket with Seth Williams

Congratulations to City Controller candidate Brett Mandel who last night joined District Attorney candidate Seth Williams on the Philly For Change Reform Ticket for the May 19 Democratic Primary, winning the vote for endorsement with 85% of ballots cast.

Congratulations too to the victorious Philly For Change Judicial Slate including Court of Common Pleas candidates Christine Adair, Dan Anders, Greg Coleman, Joyce Eubanks, Angeles Roca, and Diane Thompson, Municipal Court candidate Dawn Segal, and Delaware County Court of Common Pleas candidate Nancy Rhodes Koons. The judicial slate was unanimously approved for endorsement at last night's meetup.

Poll: Seth Williams Up 22 Points

I was sent this today.

Research 2000 Poll for the Seth Williams Campaign
400 voters, 5% MOE

Seth Williams: 37%
Dan McElhatton: 15%
Dan McCaffery: 13%
Michael Turner: 2%
Brian Grady: 2%

Well, that is pretty good news. It doesn't mean Seth is going to win, but, it is a nice place to be.

Obviously, there are a still a lot of undecideds. In all likelihood, many of those undecideds just will not vote at all in an election like this. When the undecided were then asked who they were leaning to, most still said no one (92%), followed by 6% for Seth, and 1 percent each for the Dan's.

What I take away from the poll is this: We are in a real position in the City for transformative change, very, very soon. But it cannot be done without all of us helping.

Later today, we will have info up about the fundraiser. If you want to help, send me an email:

Something new in the DA race

Yesterday at City Hall, Seth Williams unveiled a policy paper that really makes me proud to support him. You can read it here.

In it, he pledges to use the DA's office to protect consumers against fraud and predatory business practices. He'd use a underutilized tool, the state Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (or "CPL"), which gives the DA the power to levy fines and penalties and ultimately shut down abusive businesses. Potentially, the DA can wield the same regulatory power as the state Attorney General.

This is a big deal. People in neighborhoods all over Philadelphia are victimized by scams and frauds, and only particularly large or widespread problems get the attention of the US Attorney or the State Attorney general, who must deal with severe resource constraints. But the DA is right here, already in these neighborhoods, and the CPL will allow them to quickly respond to problems with relatively low administrative costs (it's a civil tool with a lower burden of proof than a standard criminal fraud prosecution).

The plan also will build important ties between the DA, the community, other branches of government, and nonprofit legal services. There's a legacy of conflict from Lynn Abraham's tenure, which this plan will help wash away.

And since one of the most intractable problems in dealing with crime in Philadelphia is the lack of trust between many communities and law enforcement, this plan can start helping bridge that mistrust. That's crucial.

Mostly I am proud of the vision this plan reflects: justice isn't just retribution, justice is a process. The first line of the plan states,

"There is a clear and compelling link between financial stresses individuals face and crimes that are committed. If the City of Philadelphia is going to reduce crime -- and not just increase arrests and convictions -- it must do more to address the victimization of its residents by abusive business practices that can lead to crime, but ultimately weaken our community."

This is progressive thinking. It's thinking that acknowledges root causes, and sets out to do something about them. It's a vision of the DA's power that is constructive and not merely reactive. And I think it shows a very important humility that has been lacking from the DA for years now: dealing with crime is a difficult process of trying to piece together neighborhoods that are broken. It's a little bit of what Obama invoked in that now-old speech:

For alongside our famous individualism, there's another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we are connected as one people. If there's a child on the south side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child. If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandmother. If there's an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It's that fundamental belief — I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper — that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. "E pluribus unum." Out of many, one.

And I'm glad there is some of that sensibility being brought into this election.

Twenty days left!: Seth Williams to announce new endorsements and policy tomorrow at City Hall

Tomorrow on the Fourth Floor of City Hall at 11AM, Seth Williams will be holding a pretty exciting press conference.

He'll announce the endorsement of important Philadelphia progressive groups spanning from gay rights to poor people's organizing: Liberty City Democratic Club, ACORN, Americans for Democratic Action, Neighborhood Networks, and Philly for Change. These endorsements are a major vote of confidence from a lot of different and important constituencies, and I think reflect Seth's attention to how crime and the criminal justice system affect people's lives in different ways beyond a simple binary of victim and perpetrator.

He'll also unveil a new policy paper, dealing with economic justice. The proposal shows a great vision of how the DA's office has power to positively affect the lives of many more Philadelphians than it has in the past.

Also: stay tuned for another YPP-sponsored benefit for Seth coming up on May 8th. Email to get on the host committee!

Seth Williams Endorsed by the Inquirer

And the beat goes on...

Next to the job of mayor, Philadelphia district attorney is the most important elected office in the city.

The district attorney manages a staff of 300 lawyers and a $30 million budget, in a criminal-justice system that handles more than 1,000 cases per week. In a city plagued by gun violence, the job is critical to public safety and quality of life.

Lynne M. Abraham chose not to run this year for the job she's held since 1991. Five Democrats, all of whom have served as assistant D.A.s, are vying for the job in the May 19 primary.

The Inquirer's endorsement goes to SETH WILLIAMS, who came close to defeating Abraham four years ago.

... and the beat goes on...

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