Abraham Faults Judge On Prisons The D.a. Blamed Judge Norma Shapiro For 46,000 Scorned Arrest Warrants And An "Irrational" Cap.

Posted: August 12, 1994

District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham yesterday sharply criticized U.S. District Judge Norma L. Shapiro, who oversees the lawsuit that spawned the city prison cap, saying the federal judge "has made a terrible error in the way she's handled" the prison crowding case.

"She's put on a higher plane people convicted of crime than . . . ordinary citizens. There is a better way to do it; she has the power to do it, and she just won't do it," Abraham said at a news conference.

Abraham also lambasted the previous city administration, under former Mayor W. Wilson Goode, for agreeing to the cap, which limits the number of inmates permitted in city jails.

"So I blame the city," Abraham said. "What Judge Shapiro has done is enforce this prison cap with a personal vengeance, which is very unbecoming. And I'm extremely mad about it."

The prison cap was the creation of a consent agreement in 1986 between lawyers for inmates and for the city who were seeking to resolve the inmates' longstanding lawsuit over overcrowding. Shapiro approved the agreement and has enforced it.

Under the cap, whenever the prison population exceeds 3,750, measures go into effect that permit the jailing of only those people charged with specific serious crimes, such as murder, rape, and robbery with a weapon. Other measures permit the court to release inmates held for relatively long periods.

The cap has been exceeded almost continuously since it went into effect in June 1988. The jails' population on Wednesday was 4,731.

Mayor Rendell has joined Abraham in opposing the cap. As one of his first acts as mayor, Rendell, joined by the U.S. Justice Department, filed a motion in federal court seeking to raise the limit.

Shapiro did not grant the city a hearing. The Justice Department, the city and the District Attorney's Office have appealed to the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"I am asking the Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse Judge Shapiro's order, and allow the city to show that this prison cap is irrational," Abraham said yesterday.

46,000 SCOFFLAWS

In scathing tones, Abraham said yesterday that the cap was largely responsible for the 46,288 outstanding bench, or arrest, warrants for defendants who don't show up for their court hearings "because they know they can get away with crimes."

"It has never been as acute as it is right now," Abraham said. "This represents 46,288 cases where victims of crime will never get their day in court. This is a total breakdown of the system."

Abraham's blast came one day after City Councilwoman Joan Krajewski said she may subpoena Shapiro to testify at a Council hearing on the cap next month.

A law clerk in Shapiro's office said Wednesday that it is her policy not to comment on cases before her.

The prison cap has been attacked recently because of a fatal car accident Aug. 2 on Interstate 95 that killed a woman and critically injured her sister. Michael Graham, 36, the ParaTransit driver charged with vehicular homicide while intoxicated, had been charged with drunken driving before, including in connection with two incidents in one week last month.

While Abraham yesterday blamed the prison cap for permitting Graham to sign his own bond, she conceded that it was not totally at fault.

A POLICE ERROR

The main reason that Graham was not in custody on his previous drunken- driving charges, she said, was that the Philadelphia Police Department ''made a mistake" and did not immediately check Graham's fingerprints when he was arrested last month.

Such a check would have turned up two additional drunken-driving arrests in 1992 under an alias. Then a judge might have set bail at a level Graham would not have been able to post, Abraham said. And Graham's employer, SEPTA, would likely have been alerted, and Graham "grounded" from driving a ParaTransit van, she said.

Still, she conceded, because Graham had a job and a stable address, he likely would have been able to post bail, and could have been out driving drunk on I-95 in his own car, if not in a ParaTransit van.

During the news conference, Abraham also criticized new state sentencing guidelines. Criminals convicted of crimes that now result in state prison terms would in the future be sent to county jails, she said, contributing to

crowding and ultimately putting more violent criminals on the streets.

"Violent criminals and sex offenders will get lighter sentences and be allowed out of jail much sooner," Abraham said. "On top of that, drug offenders will be required to have restrictive inpatient drug treatment at a time there is virtually no money for this program.

"So I am issuing a stern warning to members of the legislature and the public," the district attorney said. "This city, in spite of the Convention Center, in spite of the Avenue of the Arts, is going to be a prime breeding ground for (crime) because nobody wants to put money where their mouth is."

One city official yesterday differed with Abraham on the new state sentencing guidelines.

Dianne Granlund, a deputy managing director for criminal-justice population management, said the state has pledged nearly $1 million to Philadelphia, starting in January, to provide drug treatment, halfway houses and other options to criminals sentenced for the least violent crimes. Prisoners convicted of serious offenses, such as rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, will not be eligible, Granlund said.

Granlund said that because the city will have 1,000 more prisoner beds beginning next May, she was optimistic that there would be enough space to house inmates under the new sentencing guidelines.

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