How much does Teresa Carr Deni want to be Philadelphia’s next district attorney? Enough that she gave up a 21-year career as a municipal court judge that – thanks to the nature of retention elections, which provide voters not with a choice of opponents but with a simple yes or no vote on keeping a judge behind the bench – was the next best thing to a lifetime appointment.
Deni, who received both her bachelor’s and law degree from Temple, said that her candidacy, which launched in December, is no caprice, but something she has been ruminating on for some time.
“I did what I could on the bench,” she explained during an interview. “I wanted to run eight years ago, but I could see it wasn’t my time. I saw an opening, and decided it was my time.”
The opening she referred to – the litany of legal and ethical issues dogging incumbent DA Seth Williams – increased exponentially, along with the chances of candidates both declared and undeclared, when Williams announced on Feb. 10 that he would not be seeking re-election.
Deni plans to use the changed landscape to draw attention to her primary motivation for getting into the race: policy.
“We are at a crossroads with policy,” she said. “I want to see the changes get made and seen through. I think Seth was initially on the right track and he just got off the rails. There’s a unique opportunity in Philadelphia with the MacArthur grant” – $3.5 million awarded to the city last year to help reduce its prison population. “We’re putting together new diversionary courts all the time. We have a goal of reducing mass incarceration – we need to see this stuff through.”
In addition to finding alternatives to mass incarceration, Deni’s other priorities include one of the most contentious legal issues in the commonwealth and the nation: civil asset forfeiture.
It’s a process that involves the District Attorney’s Office liquidating cash, cars and houses seized in criminal investigations for departmental revenue – often before a defendant has been convicted.
“I would redesign – if not dismantle – the forfeiture unit,” she said. “I think it’s seizing people's homes for the wrong reasons, and for the DA’s office to be reliant on 20 percent of its budget” through forfeiture proceeds “is wrong. It punishes the wrong people. It destroys the foundation of the community to take people who have been in the community a long time and take their homes from them.”
She is also planning to back the practice of restorative justice, which seeks to repair the harm done by criminal behavior by rehabilitating the perpetrators and reconciling them with their victims, in domestic violence courts. “We have a certain amount of ‘frequent flyers’ in domestic violence courts,” Deni explained. “It doesn’t take long to figure out how the system works – someone can be arrested, but the victim doesn’t have to follow through. In most cases, they don’t want the person who is the father of their children to lose their job or to be convicted. There should be an offer of mutual counseling, especially if they’re back for a second time and they didn’t go through with the prosecution the first time.”
Another avenue Deni intends to address through policy reform what she identified as a disparity between public alcohol and marijuana consumption following the latter’s decriminalization.
“It’s a good idea to decriminalize marijuana to the point it has been,” she emphasized. “However, I do not like people marijuana smoking openly on the streets, just like I don’t like people walking down the streets with visible alcohol in their hands. I think they should be treated equally, but what we have created is a situation where public marijuana smoking is punished less harshly than people walking down the street with a bottle of alcohol in their mouth. One” – referring to marijuana – “gets a $25 citation; one gets a summary citation and you have to go to court. The court costs are up to $200, and you can get a $300 fine from it. So, it’s almost incentivizing public smoking.”
While Deni has been critical of Williams’ tenure as DA, namely the ethical issues that ultimately caused him to drop out of his re-election bid, she is no stranger to public outcry and reams of bad press.
It doesn’t take long for someone looking to learn more about Deni to come across her most notorious case, a 2007 trial where she downgraded a prostitute’s charge of rape – the plaintiff had agreed to have sex with two men, but was forced at gunpoint to have sex with four men – to theft of services. The resultant uproar catalyzed movements against her retention in 2007 and 2013, and resulted in the Philadelphia Bar Association calling her ruling “an unforgivable miscarriage of justice.”
While noting that her ruling wasn’t the end of the plaintiff’s legal saga, Deni refuses to discuss the controversial ruling, which she likes to point out was just one of over “100,000” she heard during her career.
“This one exploded because I made the mistake of trying to explain how I came to that decision,” she elucidated. “There’s a reason why there is a rule that we aren’t supposed to discuss our thought processes. I could write a book about that case. Just opening up the discussion went against me, and I don’t intend to entertain that again.”
Deni knows that if she wins, she will become the leader of hundreds of DAO employees, many of whom have become demoralized not just by the ongoing issues swirling around Williams, but by what she says is a steady exodus of talented attorneys from the department.
“Good people with good experience are leaving the office in droves,” she noted. “I don’t know what’s going on over there, but I know it’s not functioning properly.” Cognizant of the need to stem the tide of attrition, she is eager to make staffing issues a centerpiece of her potential administration.
“In some cases, I would try to get some of these people back,” she said. “I would also try to hire attorneys who are multilingual. We have a multilingual culture in this city, and it is ridiculous that we don’t have more multilingual attorneys. We need to become a more inclusive office, where people won’t be afraid to reach out to us.”