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April 2, 2009

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Candidates offer views on running DA’s office
Democratic DA hopefuls Mike Turner, Dan McElhatton and Seth Williams (from left) appealed to potential voters at a candidates forum in Mt. Airy last week moderated by John O’Connell, a Ninth Ward Democratic leader who organized the event. (Photo by Joel Hoffmann)

Democratic candidates for Philadelphia district attorney stepped up efforts to separate themselves from the pack and longtime incumbent Lynne Abraham at a candidates’ forum held last week at the Lutheran Theological Seminary’s Brossman Center in Mt. Airy.

“The criminal justice system in Philadelphia is broken,” said Seth Williams, a Philadelphia assistant district attorney from 1992 to 2003, who made some of the strongest statements of the evening. “It’s broken for all of us — black or white, yellow or brown.”

Williams vowed to crack down on illegal handgun sales, root out municipal corruption and institute a system of community-based prosecution with at least one assistant district attorney dedicated to each of Philadelphia’s six detective districts. 

Fighting municipal corruption is also high on the campaign agenda for Dan McElhatton, who served as a Philadelphia assistant district attorney from 1975 to 1978.

McElhatton, a Germantown native and former one-term city councilman, said he was committed to keeping violent criminals behind bars and survivors of crime safe. He also said he would restore trust for the district attorney’s office by forging a strong relationship with Mayor Michael Nutter and community leaders.

Michael Turner, a Mt. Airy native and former Philadelphia assistant district attorney from1981 to 1985, focused on the need to identify at-risk youth populations and work with communities to help such young people before it’s too late.

Turner pledged to hire the “right” assistant district attorneys. Like McElhatton and Williams, he said that prosecutors should not use the death penalty as a “bargaining chip” to coax defendants into accepting a lesser sentence and forfeiting their right to appeal.

But it was his stance on campaign finance that truly set him apart. Turner said he refused to accept money from political action committees, groups of donors organized for a specific cause, because he does not want to be beholden to any special interests.

“Sure, we get contributions from people,” Turner said when asked to clarify how his campaign is being funded, “but PACs expect influence.”

McElhatton said that PACs should not be condemned. All voters should have the right to support candidates in group form, he said, and voters should dismiss candidates that can be bought for any sum. He said that political contributions would not undermine his performance as district attorney.

“It is the responsibility of the DA to prosecute all violations of the law … no ifs, ands or buts,” he said.

Williams echoed that sentiment. He said that he had made many enemies by upholding the law for all when he was the city’s inspector general between 2005 and 2008. All lawbreakers will be prosecuted, he said, regardless of their relationship with the district attorney.

“Even my mother knows that,” he said.

Turner also said the district attorney needs to involve the community in sentencing. He agreed with Williams and McElhatton that the district attorney should save the prison space “for those who are truly violent” and dangerous to society. He estimated that Philadelphia correctional facilities hold 9,000 people on a given day when they were designed to hold no more than 6,400.

Williams recommended that more resources be put toward giving a second chance to non-violent, first-time offenders, instead of sending them to prison.

“We have to give them the skills they need so they can become productive,” he said.

Williams said he wanted to implement a rehabilitation and training program that would cost $5,000 a year for each first-time offender.

The city currently spends $90 to $100 a day to incarcerate someone, Williams estimated. That figure works out to somewhere between $32,800 and $36,500, or about seven times the cost of Williams’ proposed program.

All three candidates agreed that more should be done to accommodate survivors of crime and lessen the burden of testifying before those who harmed them.

Brian Grady, an Olney native who served as an assistant district attorney from 1993 to 1998, arrived late to the forum but wasted no time jumping into the debate. He criticized the system of case management at the assistant district attorney level, charging that it lacked organization and unduly burdened survivors of crime.

Grady said the district attorney could prevent prison overcrowding by leveling alternative punishments against non-violent offenders. He said that he would address the Mayor’s recent 22 percent cut in the district attorney’s budget by moving assistant district attorneys into the Philadelphia Police Department’s drug interdiction and forfeiture unit.

Grady did not provide a specific estimate, but he said that the move would allow the district attorney to tap into assets seized from drug arrests. Because that money would have to be shared with the police, the amount of money available to the district attorney would be increased with the number of assistants dedicated to the program.

Williams agreed with Grady. He also said the district attorney’s office should reduce insurance fraud prosecution and suggested that the National Rifle Association might be willing to subsidize the prosecution of illegal gun dealers, who are often involved in the drug trade.

“I would be very, very surprised if the NRA would do that,” McElhatton said.

Repairing the district attorney’s relationship with the Mayor was a surer way to bring in more resources, he said.

Although candidate Dan McCaffery did not attend the forum, his impact was felt the following day when he successfully petitioned the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas to remove Williams from the primary ballot.

The judge ruled that Williams had not followed the city’s financial disclosure statutes because he did not “report the receipt of expenses in excess of $10,000 from his campaign,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on March 27.

Williams plans to appeal the decision.

 




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