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Philadelphia District Attorney Discusses Career Path and Reform Goals

April 19, 2011

Sixteen months after taking office, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams visited the law school to discuss his career in the law and his aspirations for reforming the city’s criminal justice system.

A native of the city’s Cobb’s Creek neighborhood, Williams said he grew up in a community that perceived law enforcement officials as “oppressors.”

“I never expected to be the D.A.,” said Williams, whose visit was sponsored by the law school’s Criminal Law Society.

After graduating from the Georgetown Law Center and spending summers completing internships with large firms, Williams became a public defender in Washington, D.C., which forced him into uncomfortable positions.

“I had to beg the prosecutor for everything,” Williams said. “I did not like having to beg.”

Eventually, Williams concluded that he wanted to fight for victims of crime and to address its underlying causes – aspirations that pushed him toward the prosecution side of the aisle.

Returning to Philadelphia, Williams joined the District Attorney’s Office, where over 12 years, he held a range of jobs that gave him a broad overview of the massive agency and its weaknesses.

Among its flaws, Williams said, were a weak system for reviewing charges and a “horizontal” structure in which centralized units handled all types of crimes. The D.A.’s Office had one of the lowest conviction rates in the U.S., Williams noted.

Since taking office, Williams has implemented wholesale reforms such as allowing only experienced prosecutors to handle charging decisions, creating geographically based bureaus to handle crimes from investigation to trial and establishing diversionary programs such as a municipal court for small amounts of marijuana.

“We have to treat non-violent offenders differently than violent offenders,” Williams said. “You can’t just be punitive. You can’t solve problems by putting more people in jail. We’re on the right path to make the criminal justice system more fair.”