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Justice Denied

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

This is about a factory that is normal in almost every respect.

It has workers who gather up the raw material used in the manufacturing process.  It has a section devoted to the initial sorting of this material.  It has another section that finishes the process.  It has a shipping department that sends the finished product to its destination.

Here is where the factory is not normal: it has no bosses overseeing the place. Each department has a supervisor, of course, but each operates independently. They have equal authority. No one is charge of the entire operation.

One day a team of auditors came to the factory with terrible news. The auditors had discovered that less than half its product made it to the loading dock. Somewhere, somehow there was spillage. A lot of spillage.  The auditors wanted to know: How could this happen?

Naturally, the supervisors were upset. One said it wasn't his job to worry about the spillage; his job was to do the finishing work.  Another said the information the auditors presented was very interesting and merited further study. A third got angry and defensive and said: "How dare you come to me with these numbers! This is an insult." A fourth had a simple, elegant explanation: There was no problem with spillage. The auditor's numbers must be wrong.

In a 222-word nutshell, that is a summary of the first part of the Inquirer's four-part series on Philadelphia's criminal justice system, which began running in the paper Sunday (Dec. 13).

Whatever you do, do not skip this series. It is a masterful work, done by a team of reporters who have worked for years to (a) pry information from the system, (b) wrestle this sprawling mass of the data to the ground and (c) crack the story of the shameful conviction rate in Philadelphia.

Worst in the nation

The bottom line: Philadelphia ranks last in the nation in conviction rates for violent crime. For every 100 cases brought in, only 40 result in conviction.  How could this be? Mostly because cases never make it to trial.  They are dismissed at preliminary hearings - sometimes because a judge believes there is not enough evidence to prosecute, mostly because the case never comes together.  A witness is absent, an attorney is not ready, the victim is a no-show. The case is continued. And continued again.

The courts employ what is know as the "Three-Strike Rule" - though you will never see that tag in any official documents. After three attempts at hearing the charges, the case is dismissed. It doesn't happen in high-profile cases, such as homicide.  But it happens a lot in the other 60,000 felony and misdemeanor cases that enter the court system each year.

Officials in the criminal justice system have known about this situation for years.  And they have known that Philadelphia's conviction rate is out of whack with other similar cities. In Los Angeles, for instance, the conviction rate is 83 percent, in Houston it is 71 percent; in the Bronx it is 63 percent and in Chicago it is 60 percent.

In denial

How have they responded to this bad news? By denying it, ignoring it or trying to brush it off.  For a while, they used another gambit: denying outsiders access to the information and data needed to analyze criminal case dispositions. 

Great credit must go to Craig McCoy, the relentless Inquirer reporter who is the principal author of the series, for pursuing his quest of getting the data for nearly a decade. I also give the Inquirer credit for taking a nuanced view of the situation.  It would have been easy to search for a bad guy and stick the blame on him - District Attorney Lynn Abraham comes to mind.

But, this problem isn't a simple one.  It's a hexahedron, involving various cultural, legal and political forces - not the least of which is the "Don't Snitch" culture of the streets, a modern-day version of omerta.

One thing is telling about the revelations.  When the Inquirer reporters went to officials in the system to talk about the numbers, they were surprised at the data.  It was the first time they had ever heard what the numbers were. The people in charge of criminal justice had never - on their own - tried to figure out how they were doing when it came to the essence of their work: dispensing justice.

They never wondered about the bottom line because they don't want to know the bottom line.  Like most bureaucracies, they were more interested in process than outcome.  Their principal mission - again, unstated - was to keep the system running, keep the cases rolling through.  Label a case "Disposed" and move onto the next one.

In a way, it is forgivable - given the volume of cases.  In a more profound way, it is unforgivable.  It has resulted in a situation where the bad guys game the system and go free while the victims are victimized again. And we call this justice? 

Tom Ferrick Jr. is senior editor of Metropolis.

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