Philly’s D.A. Office is among the country’s most underfunded

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams
District Attorney Seth Williams. (Credit: Rikard Larma/Metro)

If the District Attorney’s Office receives the budgetary allocation currently proposed by Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration, incarceration alternatives like the Small Amounts of Marijuana program may soon go up in smoke, District Attorney Seth Williams testified Monday before City Council.

Under SAM, those arrested with small amounts of weed are arrested but can avoid appearing in criminal court by paying a $200 fine and attending a three-hour drug awareness course.

The program is estimated to save the city $2 million each year in police overtime and the cost of procedural necessities like drug analysis and discovery.

But due to a budgetary shortfall – the District Attorney’s Office is slated to receive less than $32 million for the next fiscal year – those types of diversions are now in jeopardy.

“Already I’ve directed my assistants to prepare for the end of SAM programs,” Williams said.

“As of July 1, all cases will have to be diverted to trial rooms.”

The budget for Philadelphia’s chief prosecutor has been flat-lined since 2011, not even keeping up with the rate of inflation and failing to account for salary increases awarded to police and probation officers.

Williams called the lack of funding a “disaster” and said it will “lead to a failed justice system in which criminals are not held accountable.”

“It will ultimately lead to a system of catch and release,” he said. “Which is only a good strategy if you’re sport fishing.”

Just one jurisdiction – Wayne County, Mich. – funds its District Attorney’s Office less per incidence of violent crime than Philadelphia.

“This is not how the mayor has treated other criminal justice agencies,” Williams said, running through a laundry list of departments that have received budget increases, including police, prisons and even the Office of Innovation and Technology, whose budget has ballooned by nearly 150 percent since 2008.

“So this is not about a lack of money,” Williams said. “In years past, maybe it was. Now, it is about values.”

Williams said though he’s been informed his office is ineligible for the majority of the funds furnished to the OIT for departmental IT support, his staff has been key in pioneering money-saving tech reforms like electronic discovery filing.

“But we, ourselves, may not be able to operate the system because our computers are out of warranty and the software is from the 1990s,” he said.

“Why should we allow criminals to have better technology than those in law enforcement?”

Though Williams said he’d need an additional $4.6 million from the city just to make up for inflation, he’s asking for a “bare bones” figure of $2.75 million to meet the increased need for public safety programs or $2 million to merely to avoid making cuts.

Other programs at risk include a robust charging unit, an accelerated misdemeanor program, public nuisance and gun violence task forces, bench warrant court and an elder justice program.

“The truth is the mayor’s budgetary proposal undermines our battles against crime,” Williams said.

“It’s not smart and it’s not right. That’s why I’m speaking bluntly here today – Philadelphians deserve better than this budget proposal.”

Though Nutter’s first goal in his five-year plan is to make Philadelphia one of the safest cities in America, Williams said his office was left out of the discussion of how to allocate funding to make that happen.

“To exclude the D.A.’s office in any discussion about public safety – especially a five-year strategic and financial plan document – demonstrates what we do is simply not valued by Mayor Michael A. Nutter.”


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