The Transformation of Criminal Justice, Philadelphia, 1800-1880

By Allen Steinberg | Go to book overview
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Philadelphia's notoriously corrupt late nineteenth-century system of criminal justice, controlled by the machine and dominated by the police, was built on the structure of primary justice that had been created by the new constitution. No one really had just such a criminal justice system in mind when the constitution was ratified, but then no one involved in shaping the new structure got just what they wanted. So, as the politicians gained control of the centralized structure of prosecution, they drew from their experience with the decentralized one. The corruption of the police and the magistrates after 1874 rested largely on the now extinct relationship between aldermen and private litigants.

Nonetheless, when the first twenty-four police magistrates were elected in February 1875, the criminal justice system in Philadelphia was markedly different from what it had been just a generation earlier. Before 1850 the gates of criminal justice were kept by fee-dependent aldermen who, along with the grand jury, courts of record, and the prison, comprised virtually the entire system. The city's paltry assemblage of night watchmen and day police had little impact on the criminal courts. At the dawn of the magistrates' courts era, the city's criminal justice apparatus was dominated by a large, professional police department. The new magistrates, like all other criminal justice officials, were now salaried officers of the state. The prosecution of cases in the courts of record was more frequently overseen by the district attorney, and the consequences of these prosecutions were ameliorated when necessary by the prison agent. Not only was there now a county prison and a state penitentiary, but there was also a house of correction for minor offenders.

However impressive these structural changes were, their practical effects were to bring an end to endemic street disorder and to delegitimize private prosecution. All of the major new components of the process of criminal justice--the police, the district attorney, the prison agent, and the police magistrates--were designed to place control over the process in the hands of salaried officials of city administration and to remove it from ordinary citizens and neighborhood politicians. Together these changed signalled a new epoch in criminal justice.

With the fee system and the old alderman's offices abolished, the


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