A Liberal 'Breath of Fresh Air' on Crime-Fighting in Philly

R. Seth Williams, Philadelphia's new district attorney, overthrows the "increasingly hard line" of his predecessor and moves toward leniency in minor crimes. Reporter Erik Eckholm can't get enough of it: "Philadelphia...seems ready to give Mr. Williams and his ideas a chance."

Reporter Erik Eckholm, a political appointee during the Jimmy Carter administration, vouched for the lenient liberal crime-fighting tactics (including downgrading penalties for marijuana) put into place by Philadelphia's new district attorney R. Seth Williams, in Sunday's "'Smart on Crime' Mantra Of Philadelphia Prosecutor."

Actually, the defacto decriminalization of marijuana is hardly a new idea in prosecutorial circles. But Eckholm treats the move as a major reform, while characterizing a lone naysayer as a hard-liner:

The new district attorney in violence-weary Philadelphia had vowed not to get tough on crime but to get "smart on crime." This month, R. Seth Williams began to make good on his word, downgrading penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana from jail time to community service and fines.

It was an easy decision, said Mr. Williams, who took office in January promising changes that would reduce prosecutions but increase the conviction rate. Now he also spends hours each week visiting schools, exhorting students to graduate.

Philadelphia, after being battered for years by the worst sort of superlatives - the highest murder rate, the lowest conviction rate - seems ready to give Mr. Williams and his ideas a chance.

"This is like a breath of fresh air," said Ellen Greenlee, chief of the city's public defenders, who described the previous district attorney's approach to charging suspects as "throw everything against the wall and see what sticks."

Eckholm clearly liked the guy:

Mr. Williams, the first black district attorney in the history of Pennsylvania, is a 10-year veteran of the office he is now shaking up. He looks younger than his 43 years and is happy for junior staff members to call him Seth.

In private and public appearances, Mr. Williams repeats practiced lines from a justice-reform movement that has taken hold in places like New York, San Diego and San Francisco and promotes, for lesser offenders, community courts and drug treatment rather than trial and prison.

Eckholm made a dour contrast between Williams and his "hard line" predecessor:

The only public condemnation came from Mr. Williams's predecessor, Lynne M. Abraham, who during 18 years as district attorney sounded an increasingly hard line on crime. Ms. Abraham criticized the new marijuana policy, saying that "the drug cartels who import pot from Mexico are thrilled."

While the drug shift caught the public eye, legal experts said the changes Mr. Williams was making, especially in the unit that decides what charges to file against those who are arrested, are far more important.

Previously, the charging unit included five lawyers, usually junior lawyers who were encouraged to file the widest and harshest charges they could, Mr. Williams said. Now the unit has 18 more experienced lawyers, who spend time considering what charges can realistically succeed. The office is also offering plea bargains earlier in the process, again to clear the courts for more serious cases.