ACLU of Pennsylvania's
Smart Justice Platform

Reducing Incarceration

The district attorney has enormous influence over incarceration rates.  The district attorney’s position almost always decides who will be detained in jail while awaiting their day in court and who will be sent to state prison and for how long. Like other jails across the country, Philadelphia has a massive problem with jailing people simply because they are too poor to afford cash bail before their criminal case is resolved. These practices come with heavy costs for Philadelphia.  Even a few days in jail can result in a lost job and other devastating consequences, and taxpayers foot a hefty bill paying for this completely unnecessary incarceration. 


  • Make an unequivocal commitment to completely eliminating the DA office’s requests to courts for cash bail. 


DA’s offices are notorious for being “black boxes.” Little information beyond conviction rates is typically gathered or made public.  This lack of transparency prevents the public, and even the DA office itself, from knowing what decisions are being made or the outcomes of those decisions. Demand for reforms without far more transparency will also make it all but impossible to know whether an elected DA is following through on campaign pledges. Fully transparent practices improve decision-making, allow the public to hold the elected DA accountable, and enable the public to push the DA in other areas in the future. 


  • Put raw data up on the DA website every quarter that includes information on all key decisions made by the prosecutors’ office—including decisions regarding diversion, charging, pre-trial detention recommendations, plea bargains, and sentencing recommendations—with complete demographic information.
  • Publish, and if necessary develop, written standards that guide line-level prosecutors’ decision-making in all the above areas.


Take a Proactive Role in Addressing Racially Biased Policing

Prosecutors across the country have begun recognizing they have a responsibility to not perpetuate racial disparities in the criminal justice system by prosecuting racially biased or unjust arrests, and acknowledging that they have a powerful role to play in addressing these practices. Prosecutors do not have to prosecute every case brought to them by police, and they make decisions every day about which cases to decline or prosecute and how to allocate their scarce resources. District attorneys in Seattle, Minneapolis and Portland, for example, have taken a proactive approach to identifying patterns of racially disparate arrests and working with law enforcement agencies to address them or, where necessary, declining to prosecute those cases until the disparities are addressed.  Taking these steps can reduce racial disparities and avoid unnecessary arrests and incarceration. 

Specific actions a district attorney could take:

  • Form a Police Accountability Unit including a board of community members, to analyze patterns of racially disparate arrests presented to the DA’s office for prosecution.
  • Publicly report findings and recommendations.
  • Commit to declining to prosecute patterns of racially disparate arrests.


Refuse to Seek the Death Penalty

The death penalty is rife with racial disparities, is inordinately expensive, often delays closure for crime victims and results in no benefits for community safety as compared to a life sentence in prison.


  • Commit to never seeking the death penalty. 


END Civil Asset Forfeiture

Civil asset forfeiture is a legal mechanism that allows law enforcement to take and keep property it claims is connected to illegal activity without charging the property owner with a crime. During Seth Williams’ tenure, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has become one of the biggest abusers of civil asset forfeiture in the country. Annually, the District Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia takes and keeps 100 homes, 150 vehicles, and roughly $4 million in cash, for a total of around $5 million in income.

A 2015 report by the ACLU of Pennsylvania examining three years of data found that: 

  • Almost one-third of cash forfeiture cases involve money owned by people who have not been found guilty of a crime – about 1,500 Philadelphians each year.
  • Sixty-three percent of Philadelphia cash forfeitures each year involve money taken from African-Americans, who make up only 43 percent of Philadelphia’s population. African-American people account for 71 percent of innocent owners who have cash forfeited in Philadelphia each year.
  • The vast majority of property seized in Philadelphia was small amounts of cash, with over half of those involving amounts of $192 or less.


  • Commit to forfeiting property only AFTER a criminal conviction.
  • At minimum, commit to only seeking to forfeit property over $5000.