Abraham defends work, criticizes city justice system

Sen. Arlen Specter at a hearing on Philadelphia's criminal justice system. Sen. Ted Kaufman of Delaware is at right.
Sen. Arlen Specter at a hearing on Philadelphia's criminal justice system. Sen. Ted Kaufman of Delaware is at right.
Posted: May 04, 2010

Former District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, stung by reports that her office had consistently low conviction rates, defended her performance Monday and criticized the rest of the city's criminal justice system as riddled with "deeply troubling" problems.

Abraham, who left office in January after 18 years, cited widespread witness fear, a massive fugitive problem, a dysfunctional bail system, and the dismissal of thousands of cases annually with no ruling on the merits.

Speaking at a hearing of the U.S. Senate subcommittee on crime and drugs, Abraham faulted Philadelphia judges as being too lenient and too quick to toss out cases. She criticized defense lawyers for "gaming the system" through deliberate delays aimed at wearing down victims and witnesses.

She blasted a bail system that allows fugitives to skip court with virtual impunity. And she faulted court clerks for shoddy record-keeping that has thwarted the city's efforts to collect nearly $1 billion in forfeited bail.

Even as she decried these failings, Abraham criticized The Inquirer for a series of stories on the courts that she said unfairly portrayed "a system in disarray, or worse, collapse."

"The criminal justice system of this city is not now, as has been almost hysterically proclaimed . . . a broken system," she said.

U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) convened the hearing in response to an Inquirer series published in December that explored many of the issues cited Monday by Abraham, including an ineffective bail program, endemic witness intimidation, and abysmal conviction rates.

Specter, who faces a challenge from U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak in this month's Democratic primary, called three hearings in response to the newspaper series, which he said he found alarming. The first focused on witness intimidation, the second centered on fugitives, and Monday's session was dedicated to resolving problems in "overburdened courts."

Also in response to the series, the state Supreme Court enacted sweeping changes in the way Municipal Court hearings are held and has formed a blue-ribbon panel to recommend further improvements.

The state Senate, too, has launched an inquiry into the city's criminal justice system, forming a bipartisan task force to scrutinize the courts to make sure they deliver justice.

At Monday's hearing, Specter invited other key participants in the system, including Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety; Ellen Greenlee, head of the Philadelphia Defender Association; John S. Goldkamp, a criminal justice professor at Temple University; and state Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery.

McCaffery, a former administrative judge of Philadelphia Municipal Court, said rising caseloads had left the city courts overwhelmed. He described a system clogged with cases, burdened by delay, and often yielding a disturbing result: cases that collapse without any ruling on whether a crime occurred.

Abraham, in her first public comments since the newspaper series was published, called the Philadelphia courts' dismissal rate "unacceptably high." When she was the city's top prosecutor, Abraham said, she routinely saw judges dismiss cases simply to clear their dockets.

"Judges were interested in productivity, not justice," she said.

As she detailed a litany of issues facing the criminal justice system, Abraham said flatly that key problems facing the system were "in many instances, external to my office."

Abraham was a judge in both Common Pleas and Municipal Courts before becoming district attorney. Now in private practice, she said she was contemplating another run for public office but would not say for what post. She declined Monday to comment on speculation that she was eyeing a run for state attorney general.

At the hearing, Abraham questioned The Inquirer's analysis of conviction rates in violent-crime cases. The newspaper analyzed 31,000 criminal cases over two years, 2006 and 2007, and found that people accused of violent crimes were escaping conviction with stunning regularity.

Philadelphia defendants walk free on all charges in nearly two-thirds of violent-crime cases, the newspaper found. Only one in 10 people charged with gun assaults is convicted of that charge, the analysis showed. Only two in 10 accused armed robbers are found guilty of armed robbery.

Abraham said she was skeptical of those findings. Though she did not provide any independent figures on the performance of her office, she said she did not believe in "justice by the numbers."

She was particularly dismissive of a federal study that lists Philadelphia as having the nation's lowest felony conviction rate among large urban counties. Abraham said the definition of a felony in Pennsylvania differs from those in other states. She noted that some jurisdictions in the study included property crimes that are not classified as felonies in Pennsylvania. This, she suggested, skewed the comparisons between Philadelphia and other counties.

Abraham acknowledged that "meritorious" cases too often failed in Philadelphia's lower Municipal Court, never advancing for a ruling on the merits in Common Pleas Court. However, she said, that was "not because of any failing on my part as district attorney of Philadelphia, but because of the Municipal Court judges."

As for problems with the city's bail system and its failure to capture and penalize fugitives, Abraham said she and others had sounded the alarm about these problems for years, to little avail.

On witness intimidation, Abraham said she long fought - indeed, she said, "almost begged" - City Council for money to protect fearful witnesses. The response, she said, was "lots of gnashing of teeth, many 'oh, this is terrible,' tons of sympathetic sighs, but not even one dime."

"It was a glaring error," she said, faulting Council for "inertia" and "lack of political will."

In all, she said, the issues highlighted in the newspaper series and at Monday's hearing were long-standing problems of the court system.

"These problems and issues have been with us since at least 1968," Abraham said. "There's nothing new under the sun."

In her testimony, she questioned the newspaper's motive in studying the courts. "Could this possibly be a vain attempt at trying to capture their former prowess as a news-gathering organization?" she asked.

Others at the hearing heralded the newspaper's work and said they were hopeful that its findings on the courts would prompt reform.

"I think that opportunity comes in at a time of crisis and concern," said Goldkamp, the Temple criminologist. Without clearly needed change, he said, "The Philadelphia court system risks being held up nationally as an example of a dysfunctional court system."

In response to the series, Specter introduced a bill that would make it a federal crime to intimidate a witness in a state case and has called on the U.S. Marshals' Service to assist Philadelphia court officials in rounding up fugitives.

During the hearing, Specter called the newspaper's work "a motivating factor" in his push for federal assistance to local courts.

Contact staff writer Nancy Phillips at 215-854-2254 or nphillips@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Dylan Purcell contributed to this article.

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