Disorder in the courts. It is the main reason violent offenders and repeat offenders are still on the streets.  Why is our court system falling apart?

The Philadelphia Inquirer has some of the best crime journalism in the country.  They understand that covering the justice system doesn’t just mean hounding the cops and covering big trials: it means investigating the courts, particularly courts’ systematic failures to enforce the law.  Why this fact continues to elude nearly every other big-city newspaper eludes me.  If you read nothing else this week, take a look at this:

Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied

With Philadelphia’s court system in disarray, cases crumble as witnesses fear reprisal and thousands of fugitives remain at large.

By Craig R. McCoy, Nancy Phillips, and Dylan Purcell

Inquirer Staff Writers

Kareem Johnson stood over Walter Smith and executed him. He fired so close that Smith’s blood splashed up onto Johnson’s Air Jordan baseball cap.

He shot him as a favor to a childhood friend.

Smith was a threat because he had come forward as a witness in a murder case against Clinton Robinson.

With the witness dead, Robinson cut a sweet deal. He pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to just 2 1/2 to five years.

“Basically, I beat it,” he says now.

He and Johnson know all about beating cases in the Philadelphia courts. In just three years, Johnson, 26, and Robinson, 24, were arrested a total of nine times for gun crimes, but until the charges escalated to murder, nothing stuck.

Three years, nine gun crime arrests, no consequences.  That’s about all you need to know.  People point fingers at the cops, but the cops did their job.  They made nine arrests, and then the public and the courts dropped the ball — nine times.  Then the no-snitching culture and the do-nothing courts caused another death:

Johnson’s bloodletting came to an end only after he killed a 10-year-old boy in 2004 in one of the city’s most notorious murders. As for Robinson, he’s locked up on a drug charge, but expects to go free soon.

After Faheem Childs’ death, people pointed fingers at the police.  But what about those nine wasted chances to get Childs’ killers off the streets for lesser crimes, arrests that surely must have included the type of evidence (a gun carried illegally by a young man with a criminal record) that would have required nothing more than the willpower of one D.A. to say: I want the maximum this time, because it’s the third/fifth/ninth time?  And the willpower of one judge to pause for one moment from his droning soliloquy about his own central role in rehabilitating young men to say: Wait a minute.  This guy is a serious threat to innocent people in his community.

Cities that implemented the “broken windows theory” of crime fighting were already well on their way to safer streets by the mid-1990′s.  But Philadelphia clung to an older cycle: neglect, then activist-driven outrage when something really bad happens, then blaming police for failures that should have been laid mostly at the feet of City Hall and the courts (Politically-savvy activists never blame the politicians, or blame them for long: they scapegoat the cops and stick their hands out for handouts from mayors and councilmen).

The result?  The highest murder rate among big cities.  And more:

In a comprehensive analysis of the Philadelphia criminal courts, The Inquirer traced the outcomes of 31,000 criminal court cases filed in 2006, 2007, and 2008, tracking their dispositions through early this year. The results go a long way toward explaining the violence on city streets.

For three consecutive years, Philadelphia has had the highest violent-crime rate among the nation’s 10 largest cities, FBI figures show. It has the highest rate for murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.

Though murder cases are an exception, Philadelphia conviction rates trail the nation’s in rape, robbery, and serious assault cases.

“We have a system that is on the brink of overall collapse,” said Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery, a former Philadelphia judge and a longtime critic of the courts’ high dismissal rate, after reviewing The Inquirer’s findings.

“These are the most horrendous crimes that can be committed – murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault,” he said, calling the conviction rates “unacceptable.”

The disorder in the courts uncovered by the Inquirer is staggering:

Defense lawyers routinely exploit the court system’s chaos. They delay cases to wear down victims and witnesses, and seek spurious postponements if they know prosecution witnesses are in court and ready to go.

Judges, prosecutors, and even prominent defense lawyers acknowledge that this kind of gamesmanship is common and that the system’s failings work to defendants’ advantage.

The system bungles basic, but crucial, steps necessary to getting key witnesses into court. Inmates, needed at trial as witnesses or defendants, never arrive. Police are routinely booked to appear in different courtrooms at the same time, guaranteeing that cases will collapse.

Though officials are working to reduce the problem, as many as a quarter of all subpoenaed inmates in recent years have failed to show up for court on any given day, experts say.

The court’s bail system is broken. Defendants skip court with impunity, further traumatizing victims who show up for hearings that never take place.

There are almost 47,000 Philadelphia fugitives on the streets. Philadelphia is tied with Essex County, N.J. – home of Newark – for the nation’s highest fugitive rate. To catch them, the city court system employs just 51 officers – a caseload of more than 900 fugitives per officer.

The consequences are staggering, too:

The system is overwhelmed by an exploding caseload, pressuring judges to put a premium on disposing cases, rather than insisting that victims and defendants have their day in court.

Of 10,000 defendants who walked free on their violent-crime cases in 2006 and 2007, 92 percent had their cases dropped or dismissed. Only 788 – 8 percent – were found not guilty at trial, The Inquirer’s analysis shows.

Staggering, too, the financial waste.  The clerk of court (Clerk of Quarter Sessions) office is so dysfunctional, it doesn’t even keep up with basic record-keeping:

In a sign of the system’s disarray, court officials had trouble answering when The Inquirer asked how much fugitives owed taxpayers in forfeited bail. At first, they said the debt was $2 million. Then they pegged it at $382 million. Finally, they declared it was a staggering $1 billion.

Of course, there’s a crooked politician at the helm.  And, remarkably, her daughter, drawing a taxpayer check right beside her:

After the newspaper raised questions about the bail debt 11 months ago, the courts and the city pledged to hire a firm to go after the money. That never happened.

For years, [District Attorney Lynne A.] Abraham has complained about the court’s failure to collect the money. Mayor Nutter, in a recent letter to her, blamed Clerk of Quarter Sessions Vivian T. Miller, saying her “inability to provide accurate records” had stalled the entire effort.

In an interview, Robin T. Jones, Miller’s top aide and her daughter, acknowledged the office had no computerized records of the debts, just paper notations in each defendant’s file.

Paper notations.  Nor did the D.A., for her part, keep up on record-keeping:

Abraham, the city’s top prosecutor, has failed to keep figures tracking how well – or poorly – her office has done in court . . . Abraham’s successor, Seth Williams, a Democrat and former assistant district attorney who will take office next month, said the D.A.’s failure to track case outcomes contributed to the low conviction rates. He said he was appalled by the newspaper’s findings.

“We have to change this,” Williams said last week. “It’s not that it’s just bad. It’s terrible.”

According to the Inquirer, Abraham staked her reputation, rightfully, on homicide prosecutions.  Her office ranked higher than the national average in successful prosecutions for that one crime (82% compared to 71%).  But Philadelphia ranks at the bottom, or close to it, for other violent crimes.  So the choice the city has made, it appears, is to do the opposite of “broken windows.”  Cut-em loose until they kill someone — not manslaughter, homicide only.

Judges claim this is all news to them.  They are shocked, shocked!:

Of the cases that die, 82 percent collapse in Municipal Court, whose judges decide whether cases should proceed to Common Pleas Court for a full trial.

Asked about the low conviction rates, Municipal Court President Judge Marsha H. Neifield said she wanted to study the issues.

“This hasn’t been presented to us before,” she said. “We want to do the right thing. If we in any way can be construed as causing any problem, we want to fix it.”

Study the issues.  You do that, judge.  Read the rest here.

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Perhaps Philadelphia should be the new poster child for the broken windows theory of crime, rather than New York, or even Los Angeles.  Because broken windows works, New York’s era of dysfunction is fading into a memory; L.A. is well on the right path.  In Philadelphia, that reform never came, and the results are clear every time a new murder defendant walks into court with a five-page arrest sheet for prior crimes.

At least Philadelphia has one thing going for it that a lot of other cities simply don’t have: reporters who bother to ask real questions about what is happening to the court system as a whole.  Call it broken windows journalism.