During her 18 years in office, Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham insisted she would not “do justice by the numbers.” Philadelphia court administrator David Lawrence said, “We’re not in the research business.” That meant conviction rates for violent-crime cases in the Philadelphia courts were unknown until the Philadelphia Inquirer drew on raw court data to report that nearly two-thirds of all defendants accused of violent crimes walked free of all charges. Abraham’s successor, Seth Williams, has obtained a $492,000 grant to equip his office with software that, for the first time, will be able to produce conviction data routinely. Eventually, he plans to make the results publicly available on a retooled office website.
“Seth’s view is that this stuff should be open and transparent,” said Sarah Hart, deputy district attorney for performance and policy, a new post. “I suspect it won’t always be pretty, but it’s important we shine a light on it.” Getting the system up and running could take two years or more, she said. Hart, 55, who began working in the District Attorney’s Office three decades ago, learned early on that prosecutors spent much of their time in paperwork hell – drafting subpoenas, photocopying records, annotating files. Little has changed, but she has set out to cut the office’s red tape and use sophisticated social-science techniques to guide its performance. In the future, Philadelphia prosecutors should be able to update their cases, issuing subpoenas and swapping information with defense lawyers during pretrial discovery, with a few keystrokes. More significant, the district attorney and the public will know precisely how criminal cases turn out. This is a big shift from the policies of Abraham and the court system. M. Elaine Nugent-Borakove, president of the nonprofit Justice Management Institute and an expert on prosecutorial policy, said Hart’s project appeared to be on the cutting edge in a field where data are sometimes scarce or not shared with the public. “That kind of initiative is a model that we would like other justice agencies to be following,” she said.