Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams visited the law school on Feb. 27 to discuss his career, the importance of diverse work experience in the legal profession, and what he called a “new paradigm” of American prosecution.
Williams said he grew up in West Philadelphia with the ambition to make a difference but not sure how he might best achieve his goals. It was not until he graduated high school and attended Penn State, where he served as the President of the Black Caucus, that Williams claimed he began to see how the law can effect change. Thus, after Penn State he pursued a law degree at Georgetown University and then went on to practice as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia.
Williams’ legal career was not solely limited to practicing as an assistant district attorney, however, he also spent some time working in major law firms, served as the Inspector General of the City of Philadelphia and served in the military. As an attorney, it is paramount to “learn what you don’t like and what you do like,” Williams commented as he reflected on his diverse legal background. Attorneys have a responsibility to constantly “reinvent” themselves and expose themselves to as many different areas of the law as possible, Williams argued. This exposure informs attorneys' decisions later in their careers and has been invaluable to him, Williams claimed, as he attempts to reimagine the approach to prosecution in the City of Philadelphia, he said.
Prior to his tenure as District Attorney, Philadelphia’s approach to prosecution was simply to be tough on crime, Williams claimed. However, this toughness did not translate into actual convictions and did nothing to reduce the rate of recidivism in Philadelphia, Williams argued. In what Williams called the “new paradigm of the American prosecutor” it is “the certainty, not the severity of the crime,” that makes a difference. This approach, William said, requires prosecutors to be “smart on crime.”
Williams said he is doing several things to change the way the District Attorney’s office works so that he and his attorneys could be “smart on crime.” He has reorganized his office geographically so that prosecutors can learn patterns of crime and hone in on repeat offenders in specific neighborhoods throughout the city. Williams has also increased the number of people in the charging unit, so that they closely analyze cases before they charge someone and only prosecute the ones that are likely to lead to conviction. Williams said he also believes that more incarceration does not necessarily mean more safety and has thus argued that erecting rehabilitative programs to reduce the amount of repeat offenders are a necessary component of his office’s work.
Ultimately, Williams said, being “smart on crime” requires being open to new practices in the field of prosecution and, quite candidly, admitted that many of the programs he has implemented derived from best practices in other prosecutors’ offices throughout the country. Williams credited his office’s success to being receptive to new ways to prosecute and claimed that such receptiveness would not have been possible had he not been exposed to so many different areas of the law before becoming District Attorney.