Elmer Smith: Victims of unclogging the justice system's arteries

D.A. Seth Williams (left) admits that he inherited a "broken system."
D.A. Seth Williams (left) admits that he inherited a "broken system."
Posted: November 16, 2010

YOU'LL be pleased to know that the guy who smashed your car window and stole your eight-track player in 1976 is no longer a criminal.

Not that he necessarily has seen the error of his ways and set his feet on a straight and narrow path. He's no longer a criminal because smashing your car window in 1976 is no longer a crime.

Now, if he were to come back and smash your car window tomorrow, he'd be a criminal again. That is, he would be as long as he got caught and prosecuted before the bloodhounds lost his scent.

If, in fact, he were able to stage his criminal acts so that they fell between the amnesty periods, but not during the pendency of his fugitive status, he could theoretically be entitled to serial absolutions.

I know. I didn't get it either.

Maybe that's why city officials held an absolution rite in a virtual star-chamber proceeding last week. They figured we wouldn't get it.

The official version of what happened just ahead of rush hour Friday afternoon is that the local courts, at the urging of the state Supreme Court, wrote off 19,400 cases to reduce a backlog of unserved fugitive warrants. The cases all involve what the system sees as minor crimes committed at least 12 years ago.

In short, it was decreed by judicial fiat that your eight-track thief is now a former fugitive, a status he achieved without apprehension.

We may have some apprehension about this. So, I asked District Attorney Seth Williams to explain.

He said these periodic purges of the least-wanted list are needed to unclog the arteries of a system that can't afford to pursue every minor crook.

"We really don't have the resources," Williams said. "I'm talking about making tough choices in a dwindling economy.

"The status quo is not acceptable. But I inherited a broken system and my job is to come up with new ways to make sure we have fewer fugitives going forward."

Williams said he has instituted a felony unit within the D.A.'s office to keep better track of pending fugitive warrants. He said he has moved more felony preliminary hearings to the Criminal Justice Center, where victims are less likely to be confronted by perpetrators and their supporters.

That was good news. But how, I asked him, does not going after people that police weren't going after anyway help unclog the system?

"I hear you," Williams said, conceding the point. "But the state Supreme Court urged us to do it. I've got to be a team player on this."

Not to put too much of this on Williams' plate. Most of these crimes were committed while he was still learning long division. And these periodic purges have been a staple of the justice system for decades.

Most of them involve what he called "victimless crimes." But thousands of them involved theft and simple assault, cases in which these fugitives victimized people and escaped prosecution, according to the Sunday Inquirer's well-researched investigative piece.

When the justice system says that a crime like that no longer matters, it's saying that the victim no longer matters. At least that's what it feels like to you if your stuff was stolen.

And when you consider last week's news that 253,333 mostly law-abiding citizens were stopped and frisked on the street because a cop had a "reasonable suspicion" of "illegal activity," it looks like the cops are tougher on some of us citizens than they are on some criminals.

The mayor stepped up the stop-and-frisk policy to get illegal guns off the street. Butby the Inquirer's reckoning, scores of pending gun cases got written off.

"People are interested in 2010 guns more than they are in gun cases from 20 years ago," Williams said. "We're dealing with 2010 gun crimes."

And they will be until the next time the system needs to have its

arteries unclogged.

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/smith.

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