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Criminal Justice Reform Survives Its First Stress Test

Why didn’t the fall of former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams on fraud and corruption charges doom his reform-minded agenda?  
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams departs after a preliminary hearing in his bribery and extortion case at the federal courthouse, in Philadelphia, Tuesday, March 28, 2017.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams departs after a preliminary hearing in his bribery and extortion case at the federal courthouse, in Philadelphia, Tuesday, March 28, 2017. Matt Rourke/AP

Philadelphia’s District Attorney Seth Williams resigned from his post last week on the same day that he pleaded guilty to a slate of federal felony fraud and corruption charges. He is now in jail awaiting sentencing. It’s worth going through the tale of how Williams, one of the rare prosecutors who was focused on helping people avoid incarceration, finds himself locked up today—and what this means for criminal justice reform nationwide.

Years before then-Attorney General Eric Holder launched the “Smart on Crime” initiative, aimed at curbing frivolous arrests and incarceration, Williams was already on that path. He was elected to the district attorney’s seat in 2009 in a city that then and now has some of the highest incarceration and violent crime rates in the nation. The fact that both of those rates are happening simultaneously is testament enough that voraciously locking people up is inadequate for reducing violent crime.