Striding into second term, D.A. Williams plans to turn the tides on violent crime

District Attorney Seth Williams District Attorney Seth Williams, who just began his second term in the post, in his Center City office. Credit: Charles Mostoller

D.A. Seth Williams has two cell phones — one of which just receives a steady stream of alerts about shootings, robberies and other crimes around Philadelphia — so that he always knows what’s going on around the city.

But at the same time, as a native of West Philadelphia, he also experienced what it was like to be a victim of crime growing up — whether it was having his father’s ’63 Impala Super Sport stolen, people firing guns near the house or fresh flowers taken from the garden.

Williams on Monday was sworn in for his second term as Philadelphia district attorney at an inauguration ceremony where he pledged to continue pursuing programs that have made the city safer. It’s all part of what Williams called “a changing paradigm” in criminal prosecution — which calls for focusing more resources on violent crime and less on non-violent criminals.

About 43 percent of the misdemeanor cases the office sees are processed by Williams’ court-diversion programs.

“To me, it made sense as a manager,” Williams said. “We were spending thousands of dollars on someone who possessed about $10 worth of weed.”

Williams also developed Focused Deterrence, a program that engages young people with criminal records and asks them to stop each other from committing violent acts.

“It could be because they’re protecting a stash of drugs, it could be because somebody called somebody’s girlfriend ugly. We don’t care why. If anyone in your group uses a gun, we’re going to come down on all of you,” Williams said they tell participants.

“It’s more powerful for one of their guys to say, ‘Yo, don’t screw up, dont use the gun,'” Williams said.

Another issue Williams plans to engage with more fully is school truancy — not for kids who skip school sometimes, but in cases with “parents who keep their kids at home.”

“The last and final resort would be to prosecute parents … for endangering the welfare of a child,” Williams said.

But the District Attorney’s Office is working against the tide of shrinking public budgets.

“Our office is woefully underfunded,” Williams said. “That’s across the board, though. Philadelphia needs to invest in law enforcement.”

As the first African-American district attorney in Pennsylvania, Williams knows that his tenure in office is important to many Philadelphians.

“For generations, people who were black and brown felt as though the criminal justice system wasn’t fair,” he said.

But it isn’t all about being first.

“There are other numbers that are more important,” Williams said. “We had 249 homicides last year, 80 percent of them by handgun, and most of them were black and brown men … How do we change that?”

By the numbers

81%– felony conviction rate

59% –felony dismissal rate in 2008

43% –misdemeanor cases resolved through diversionary programs without jail-time

285 –prosecutors working in the city

600 — totalemployees at the D.A.’s office

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