The Transformation of Criminal Justice, Philadelphia, 1800-1880

By Allen Steinberg | Go to book overview
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3. The Courts of Record

By the summer of 1860, the professional police had been on the job for six years, some of the immediate resistance to them had quieted down, and it might have been reasonable to assume that their legitimacy as the city's primary law enforcement agency had gained acceptance. Yet in commenting about his beat, the Public Ledger's court reporter remained amazed that "people . . . will go to law about matters of no moment whatever." Even at decade's end, after the tumult and disruption of the Civil War, judges were still complaining that, rather than relying on the police, people were retaining old habits: "it would hardly be believed that the criminal law is resorted to every day in hundreds of cases without any justification, yet this is literally true."1

The courts of record were continually confronted with cases that court officials believed were only cluttering their calendars. Private prosecutors, despite having to negotiate a more complex legal process, still frequently took cases into the trial courts. Though they could not control the process as fully as they had during a case's primary stages, prosecutors nonetheless wielded considerable influence over the proceedings in the courts of record. Manipulation of the criminal law by the parties to cases resulted in extremes in every possible direction. One court reporter, for example, was struck by how much court space and time was wasted by the demands of prosecutors that their cases be heard. The parties, "hard working people," managed "to secure sufficient money to fee counsel and to prosecute or defend, and the result is a trial of unnecessary length." Private prosecutors attended court daily, accompanied by their families, waiting sometimes weeks to have their cases called. To the reporter, some of these cases were "meritorious . . . but they are very few."2

Equally as common, however, was precisely the opposite--the failure of prosecutors to follow through with their cases. Grand juries constantly dismissed cases because of the "unwillingness of persons to prosecute." The jurors thought there were several reasons for this. Often, they claimed, prosecutors simply wanted cases to go no further, "considering they have given their victim sufficient trouble and annoyance without bringing any to themselves." At other times, prosecutors did not realize the case would be sent to a grand jury. Wanting simply to order someone to keep the peace, they were


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