Philadelphia Metropolis


Red Light, Green Light

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 By Tom Ferrick Jr.


Years ago, I was talking to Carol Ann Campbell, the late ward leader and councilwoman, about a matter near and dear to both our hearts: campaign finance disclosure.

As a columnist and political writer, I thought that disclosing money you raised and spent as part of political activity was a good thing.  Campbell did not.

She didn't want people to know where she got the money she took into her political action committee. So, she never filed reports. I had called her up to ask her why.

She blustered a bit, then said cryptically: You know, sometimes a red light is really a green light.

I knew what she meant.  While the law required candidates and political action committees to file regular disclosure reports, the fines for failing to file were small - about $100 a day - and capped at about $1,000. For Campbell, paying those fines - had the Department of State ever pursued her with other than letters - was simply the cost of doing business. She took a feeble, ineffectual system of enforcement as a green light to do what she wanted to do.

God bless her.

I thought of that conversation this week in reading the Inquirer's great four-part series on the criminal justice system.

The system is supposed to function as one giant red light on crime.

But, is it? Not according to the data.  Except for homicide, Philadelphia's conviction rate is the lowest among the nation's largest cities.  If you get arrested for a crime in Philadelphia, the odds overall are 3-2 that you will never go to prison.  For some crimes, such as robbery, the odds are even worse- only 1 in 5 defendants are convicted.

If you are a citizen or a crime victim these are terrible numbers.

If you are a criminal defendant it proves the system is working quite nicely, thank you.

Using the Inquirer series as a guide, you could even fashion a series of rules for criminals to follow in the event they get arrested.  Some of the rules would include:

It Pays To Intimidate Witnesses.  Criminals know about the court's three-strike rule - if the case can't come together after three preliminary hearings, the charges are dismissed and the defendant walks.  The best way to get the number to three? Threaten to beat the hell out of a witness (or a witness's relative) if they show up to testify.  Keep them away from court and the hearing is continued.  If it's continued again and again, the case is dismissed.  Then you can go beat the hell out of the witness for turning you into the cops. 

It Pays to Jump Bail.  You put up 10 percent of the bail amount, but then you skip the court hearing.  You forfeit the $500 or so you put up, but you remain free.  A fugitive warrant is issued calling for your arrest, but there are so many outstanding

warrants the odds of being caught are small. You are supposed to also forfeit the entire bail amount, but the Clerk of Quarter Sessions office, which is supposed to collect on forfeited bail, is so dysfunctional the odds of them actually moving to collect the money are negligible. If you are caught - probably during commission of another crime --  you will have to face jail time for jumping bail. But by then it could be several years after the first arrest, the case against you will be cold, the witnesses long gone or now lacking interest in pursuing the case. The old charges will be dismissed.

It Pays to Plea Bargain. You are charged with aggravated assault and armed robbery. You know you are going to do some time, but you also know the system is anxious to make a deal so your case doesn't languish and the backlog doesn't grow.  So, you strike a deal.  The Agg. Assault charges are reduced to simple assault - going from a felony to a misdemeanor.  The gun charge is dropped. You plead guilty to robbery. Case disposed.

You are off to jail for a few years, but back on the street soon enough to resume your chosen profession of crime.

There is a word for these gambits - adaptive behavior.  It's the human trait that allows us to overcome obstacles by finding ways around them.  Our Darwinian imperative, it seems, is to learn how to game the system.

And, in Philadelphia the system is being gamed every day in almost every way. 

The only way to fix this is to apply adaptive behavior to the system of delivering justice.  The courts, the cops, the prosecutors have to change the way they operate - or else justice will continue to be denied.

As Carol Campbell wisely pointed out: ...sometimes a red light is really a green light.

We have to find a way get it back to red.


Tom Ferrick Jr. is senior editor of Metropolis



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