By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
PHILADELPHIA – It was a simple question. “What’s the one thing most people in Philadelphia who are arrested have in common?”
Philadelphia District Attorney-elect Seth Williams asked this during a session with teenage boys at De La Salle in Towne during a Dec. 8 meeting. His audience knew something about this because when he’d previously asked, “How many of you have ever been arrested?” the response had been, “We all have, that’s why we’re here.”
De La Salle is a Catholic Social Services day program for juvenile offenders who have been placed there by the court.
But as to what most people who are arrested have in common: “The number one thing they have in common – they didn’t finish high school,” Williams said. “The best way to prevent crime is to finish high school.”
His audience wasn’t buying it.
He also asked how many had been homeless, how many had been in foster care, how many had ever been kicked out of a school.
“You guys see me standing here in a suit and think I’m corny or something, and I’m here to tell you I was all of that,” he said.
He told them how he’d been put up for adoption as an infant, had first been in an orphanage then in two foster homes before his adoption. “I was put out of school because I failed math, so I’ve been there too,” he said.
But Williams persevered on to Penn State, Abington Campus and Georgetown University School of Law. After graduation he served as an assistant D.A. for more than 10 years until four years ago when he ran for D.A. the first time, but lost.
“I tried cases for everything from people stealing out of newspaper boxes to people who kill people,” he said. “I’m a lawyer, and I’m a major in the Army Reserves.”
He asked the boys what they would like to be when they grew up. An entrepreneur, a judge, an artist, a D.A., a rapper and a doctor were among the answers; some laughed as they said it, clearly doubting any such thing would happen.
Growing up in the former St. Carthage Parish in the Cobbs Creek section of the city, Williams had his dreams too. He played basketball with the Cobbs Creek Comets at 63rd and Cedar. Some of the kids he played with finished school, even college. Others were sent by the court to Glen Mills or De La Salle, some went to prison.
Some of his friends called him a punk when he continued with his education, and even more so when he was going to Penn State. For that he had to catch two buses, the El and the Broad Street Subway every day.
“I’m telling you, don’t give up, you can be anything you want to be,” he said.
Williams spoke to the young men about the proliferation of illegal guns on the street, and how important it was to stop the sale of them. He also asked them for suggestions about how street violence could be stopped.
More jobs and more recreation centers were among the constructive responses.
In an interview afterward, Williams explained he visited De La Salle because as district attorney his job will be to prevent crime, not just prosecute people.
He still lives in his childhood parish, which is now St. Cyprian, through the merger of St. Carthage and Transfiguration. He and his wife Sonita are the parents of three children, Alyssia, Taylor and Hope.
He’s a lector at St. Cyprian, where he was a founding member of the parish pastoral council and chaired the committee which led to the parish consolidation. He also headed the very successful parish carnival committee. On a diocesan level, he is a member of the Catholic Social Services board of directors.
About that school he mentioned flunking out of? That was West Point, where the math did him in. But while at the Academy he was also a choir member and CCD instructor. During his subsequent career at Penn State he rose to student government president.
Williams, who will be sworn in as District Attorney Jan. 4, started planning the visit to De La Salle the day after his November election.
“The goal of the prosecutor should be mercy, redemption and justice,” he said. “It is obviously a big challenge. Keep me in your prayers.”
Philadelphia’s incoming D.A. knows that some of the boys he spoke to during the visit will probably have further trouble with the law, but “If I reached even one of them, it was worth doing,” he said.
He singled out two young men, Raheem Tyson and Shakor Ransom who gave him a tour of the facility, as two he is certain will have a good future. They, in turn, were just as impressed by Williams.
“He was excellent. He treated us like adults,” Raheem said. As for the group session, “He controlled himself and didn’t flip out and get angry. He worked with us,” he said.
Shakor considered it a good experience. “Everyone wanted a picture with him, they enjoyed his company,” he said.
De La Salle in Towne, which opened as a day treatment center in 1972, is a branch of the archdiocesan-run St. Gabriel’s System within CSS. It has between 80 and 100 court-adjudicated boys, according to Charles Gaus, who has been director since 1989. Some will stay with it and earn a high school diploma, while others, after treatment, might move on to a regular public school. In addition to the intensive counseling and usual academic programs, the Middle States accredited program offers courses in culinary arts and Microsoft computer applications.
Many of the boys De La Salle serves have had trauma in their lives and anger management is a big issue.
Gaus said Williams’ interaction with the boys “shows how genuine he is. He has teaching skills and was able to pull them back to the positive when they got off track.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.