As he begins his second term in office, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams says he plans to continue the initiatives of his previous term while coping with the severe budgetary deficiencies in his office.
Williams, who was inaugurated Jan. 6, said that the District Attorney’s Office now employs fewer assistant district attorneys than it has in previous years due to a lack of funding. This lack of funding could present difficulties for those freshly-minted attorneys seeking to start their legal careers in prosecution.
“We are woefully underfunded,” Williams said. “We get less money today, in real dollars, than we did in 2008—not counting for cost of living and inflation. We’re trying to do more with less. … We face a serious problem when it comes to the budget.”
In a climate where young lawyers struggle to find hands-on experience, the budgetary restrictions in the District Attorney’s Office could limit employment opportunities for newer attorneys.
“We’re going to have to continue to work the political channels to ensure the DA’s office is funded appropriately,” Williams said.
In terms of young lawyers utilizing the District Attorney’s Office as a launchpad for a career in law, Williams said, “I think the DA’s office is a great place for them to begin their legal career, or to keep it. They get a lot of experience and responsibility in a short time.”
Williams added, “Some people get three trials in a year, that’s unheard of. People in civil practice might go their entire career without a jury trial. We provide a lot of training and mentoring and we foster esprit de corps and an interest to work on behalf of the public.”
William Spade, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office for nearly a decade, said that budgetary restraints may also force current prosecutors to leave the office in order to make ends meet.
“If you compare it to the federal system,” Spade said, “generally there are a lot more prosecutors in the federal system because the salary progression is higher. There was a general feeling in the DA’s office that it’s hard to make a career out of it … it’s just not enough financially.”
However, Spade echoed Williams’ sentiments that the District Attorney’s Office does prepare young lawyers for their future careers.
“When I was there it was a great training ground. It’s a great job from a lot of different perspectives. You’re helping victims,” Spade said. “By the nature of the job you’re getting hands-on experience, in trial or in appellate courts making arguments.”
On Williams’ performance during his first term, Spade lauded the District Attorney’s Office’s diversionary programs as saving the criminal justice system money by focusing prosecution on more serious offenders.
“To the extent that you’re implementing programs where you’re taking away the expenditures for crimes that aren’t hurting the community to the ones that are, I think that should continue,” Spade said.
Criminal defense attorney Ronald Greenblatt also spoke positively of Williams’ previous initiatives.
“A lot of the reforms that DA Williams brought into office, including the zoning of the court system by geographic region, provided a very positive direction for the court system and were very good, pragmatic decisions,” Greenblatt said.
Greenblatt added that he hoped to see a continuation of Williams’ “innovative thinking” in his second term.
“What the DA does is so important for the city of Philadelphia and from the standpoint of the Philadelphia chapter of PACDL [Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers], we hope to work with DA Williams on issues that we agree on with the understanding that there will be certain issues that we won’t agree on,” Greenblatt said, “like the indicting grand jury, which is leading to significant problems in the courts.”
Williams noted that the institution of the grand jury in Philadelphia has led to the increased protection of those in cases of witness intimidation.
Additionally, in tandem with continuing diversionary programs, initiating programs to reduce school truancy and criminal recidivism, and keeping gun violence and homicides down, Williams said he wants to be a champion of the victims of child sex-abuse.
“We need to do all we can to protect them,” Williams said.
Notably, Williams’ office prosecuted Monsignor William Lynn, who was recently released from prison after winning his appeal before the state Superior Court.
Lynn was the first Catholic Church administrative official to have been charged with endangering minors in connection with the priest sex-abuse scandal.
Criminal defense attorney Jeffrey Lindy, who formerly represented Lynn, said that while he believed Williams was wrong in his prosecution of Lynn and was overly emotional in speaking out against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, he respected what Williams was doing in terms of death-penalty cases.
“What he is doing with death-penalty prosecutions is light-years ahead of what Lynne Abraham did,” Lindy said. “That’s not to say that he is not pursuing the death penalty, but he is trying to do it in a more fair and just manner. With Abraham every case was a capital case and I don’t agree with that.”