BY JEFF DEENEY I’ve been a social worker in the criminal justice system for a little over a year now so I’ve had something of a front row seat to observe the various dysfunctions and outright failures documented in the Inquirer’s series on the courts. The series has done a great job of definitively nailing down a slew of major problems that everyone who has any even small amount of professional contact with the courts has known for a long time. The system is clogged to the point of bursting, and as a result cases get delayed, or dropped, outstanding bails go uncollected, fugitives easily evade justice and many go on to commit more crimes as a result, witnesses that can’t be protected by a flimsy city program are routinely snuffed out or terrorized into not testifying…etc., etc., etc. None of this is new and most of these stories have appeared in the papers in some measure previously but there hasn’t been such a comprehensively damning collection of them that make readers feel the frustration and sense of futility that those of us who work inside the system can feel on a daily basis.
I work in CJC, the Criminal Justice Center, at least once a week, often twice a week to present information about my clients at their court status listings. Theclusterfuck that court employees, defendants, witnesses and cops face just getting in the building every morning is probably the clearest and most concrete evidence of how close the system is to choking to death. There is a bank of elevators on the first floor ofCJC that are legendarily miserable to use. By 9am the line to get on an elevator flows back from the elevator bank to the security check points everyone has to pass through when they enter the building. This mob scene is like a hellish version of a NYC subway station at the height of rush hour (I lived in NYC for five years and spent one of them commuting downtown on the 4/5 train so I know what I’m talking about), with throngs of people pushing, shouting, even sometimes physically fighting to get an elevator. Inside the elevators people are packed in to capacity, wedged up against each other and shouting matches between cops and defendants, defendants and other defendants, defendants’ girlfriends and cops, defendants or other defendants’ girlfriends are basically standard operating procedure. It’s total fucking chaos and insanity every single morning because there are just too many people trying to get into too few court rooms. I dread having to attend AM listings days before the listings are even scheduled.
Defense lawyers know how to capitalize on the chaotic atmosphere at CJC to help get their clients off. One lawyer in the series recounts winning a case because a witness was stuck in the elevator line I just described. Additionally, the Sheriff’s Office that is charged with the task of transporting prisoners from State Road toCJC often fail to put a guy on the bus, so the case gets postponed. Cops don’t show, so cases get postponed. Witnesses don’t show, the ADA isn’t ready, Defender’s Association isn’t ready, a private defense attorney cooked up some bullshit monkey wrench to throw in the gears: postponed, postponed, postponed, postponed. Eventually, most charges get dropped and all the waiting around is for naught, the resources expended in the process wasted.
But as the Inquirer series shows, things aren’t just busted at CJC. The city’s culture of witness intimidation routinely causes cases to fall apart, and the paltry local witness protection program simply cannot nor will ever change this. In fact, witness intimidation is just one facet of a larger intimidation culture that allows young corner hustlers to keep strangleholds on the blocks where they sell. These same kids who intimidate witnesses into backing down at court so they can continue operating on the streets go back to their neighborhoods and continue to intimidate neighbors into not reporting crimes in the first place. A former client of mine who lived in the sameSwampoodle section of North Philly much of the Inquirer series focuses on had her house commandeered by the local drug set. She lived in the corner property, and her stoop was the perfect place to set up shop in order to attract drug buyers moving along Indiana Avenue. The corner hustler kids bullied her with threats against her children’s lives should she go to the cops. Then they stashed their drugs on her property and sold on her front steps. Ironically, when the Narc Squad finally conducted a raid, she was the one who went down on drug charges. It took her two years of fighting the charges to be exonerated, while the corner hustlers who the drugs belonged to were never arrested or charged moved on to another block and bullied someone else into using their property for a selling spot.
Stories like these and others provided in the Inquirer series are a dime a dozen in North Philly.
And regarding the city’s fugitive and bail problems? Please. I’ve heard defendants in CJC openly bragging about how easy it is to lam; in fact, I was told that right now is the perfect time of year to run because when it gets cold out cops are less likely to get out of their cars to do routine stops or chase you down if you run. During the winter fugitives know they havecarte blanche to freely move around the city without threat of incarceration.
What are conspicuously missing from the Inquirer series are answers. Not that it’s the paper’s job to provide answers to the city’s criminal justice problems, but nobody the paper talks to seems to have any good ideas on where to proceed from here. Increasing the city’s witness protection funding is not the answer, and it’s not going to happen, regardless. Right now budgets have been slashed to the bone and it would take a number of years of sequential increases in witness protection funding just to get it back to where it was before, and it wasn’t working then. In order to reign in the totally absurd number of fugitives on the streets it would take a Warrant Unit force exponentially larger than the one we can already barely afford. Parole and probation officers are currently taking furlough days, so don’t hold your breath for any significant staffing increases there, either.
The fact is that there are no answers, at least none that a system generally opposed to progressive measures like harm reduction and drug legalization will consider. So, Philadelphia, this is your criminal justice system. Just be glad that if you’re reading this you probably don’t live in a neighborhood where any of this matters, anyway.