Police departments will lose some discretion with Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.’s decision to have prosecutors sign off on all felony charges before they’re filed. But the benefits — greater consistency, professionalism and fairness in law enforcement across the county — are more important.
Police officers file charges against people all the time. The practice can become rote, and there may be a tendency to inflate the seriousness of an offender’s conduct on paper, if only to cover the bases and make sure something sticks. In other cases, officers may be unsure about the right mix of charges in a case and file the wrong ones. Protocols for filing charges may vary from one department to another, meaning an offender will get a better shake in one community than another.
These types of disparities undercut the fairness of the justice system. The more serious the charges, the more likely a defendant will get a high bail. That means inappropriate charges can have the unfortunate effect of keeping a person in jail longer than necessary and of burdening the jail and other detention programs.
Mr. Zappala — recognizing the stigma of a felony charge, even if it’s withdrawn or dismissed, and the other effects that inflated charges have on defendants and the court system — wants to lock the process down. “We’ll get it right from the beginning so we’re not changing people’s lives when we shouldn’t,” he said.
The extra work will fall on Mr. Zappala’s office, which will have to make prosecutors available to confer with police around the clock. But Mr. Zappala has been building to this point. For years, he has required prosecutors to sign off before certain felony charges, including homicide and robbery, are filed. Expanding the directive to all other felonies, his office said, isn’t as dramatic as it may sound. Eventually, the office plans to require advance approval of lower-level charges, too.
The differing perspective that police and prosecutors sometimes have on a case was thrown into sharp relief in January, when city police charged Steelers linebackers coach Joey Porter with various offenses following a dispute outside a South Side club. The charges were approved by a police supervisor. After reviewing videotape of the altercation, however, Mr. Zappala dropped the most serious charges, saying they weren’t substantiated by the evidence. The police objected, but Mr. Zappala is the boss.
To hear Mr. Zappala tell it, this kind of thing happens frequently. “Under current practices, there are dozens of instances each week in which charges are either withdrawn or changed by my office to accurately and fairly reflect the level of criminality of the incident(s) in question,” he said in a letter explaining the policy change to Allegheny County President Judge Jeffrey Manning and county Executive Rich Fitzgerald. His office also resolves many cases at the magistrate level and has thrown out some low-level charges once restitution has been made, recognizing that “not every arrest or citation” needs to proceed further.
Mr. Zappala’s job isn’t merely to rack up convictions. It’s also his responsibility to ensure that police do their work properly, that taxpayer money is efficiently used, that the courts operate as smoothly as possible and that offenders get what they deserve — but no more. By asserting more control over the charging process, he is advancing those goals.