The Transformation of Criminal Justice, Philadelphia, 1800-1880

By Allen Steinberg | Go to book overview

9. The Transformation of Primary Justice

The Civil War years were good ones for the prestige of Philadelphia's police. The absolute level of crime in the city diminished, but more importantly--while many other cities, notably nearby New York, were racked by civil disorder--Philadelphia remained quiet and orderly. Mayor Alexander Henry took physical command of the police and, using the mandate provided by consolidation, deployed them throughout the city so skillfully that every potential disturbance was cut short. In a border city that had considerable prosouthern sentiment at first and was later threatened by invasion, this was an impressive achievement.1

The rising stature of the police only made it easier for reformers to press on with their critique of private prosecution. PSAMPP members developed a plan for restructuring primary justice and assumed leadership of the campaign to destroy the traditional bases of private prosecution. Prison reformers were the natural leaders of a criminal justice reform movement; they had thought about the matter the longest, were least beholden to politicians, and were among the most frustrated of consolidation's supporters. Also, as long-time advocates of one of the first formal institutions within city government, they were among the clearest proponents of an administrative state. Their proposal was primarily the work of Prison Agent Mullen (who was eulogized in 1882 as the man "mainly instrumental" in replacing the aldermen with paid police magistrates). Following his lead, prison reformers made it plain that they were as concerned with undermining old centers of authority as they were with building new ones.2

They were not, however, able to effect change on their own. For this, they had to await the mobilization of a broader group of municipal reformers who would be directly concerned with breaking the power of the ward politicians. These reformers embraced the prison reformers' critique of aldermen and private prosecution and used it in their battle with the politicians. The result, embodied in the new state constitution of 1874, was like previous reforms a compromise, but one to which the prison reformers' critique of private prosecution was well suited. Like all compromises, it was based on what the disputants had in common, which in this case was a preference for the police over private prosecution. Under fire, the police magistrates and their

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