Empowering the community to take a stand against gun violence in the courtroom.
What is Courtwatch?
CeaseFirePA’s Courtwatch program works to bring the voices of the community into the courtroom. Concerned community members from across Philadelphia — and more recently, Pittsburgh and the surrounding area — have joined CeaseFirePA in court to observe sentencings in illegal gun possession and trafficking cases. When permitted by the judge, concerned community members testify about how they and their communities have been affected by gun violence.
Why Bring Community Members in for These Sentencings?
In illegal possession and trafficking cases, the criminal activity often does not involve the firing of a gun. This sometimes creates the mistaken impression that these are victimless crimes. By providing testimony about the effects these crimes have on our communities, Courtwatch gives the court direct evidence of community impact to consider in the sentencing decision.
The Growth of Courtwatch
CeaseFirePA first brought community members into the courtroom in November 2011 for the sentencing of a defendant who was trafficking guns in Philadelphia. The Judge recognized the importance of considering how the people in the community were affected by gun violence and the presence of illegal guns. She denied the defense’s request for probation and sentenced the defendant to three years in prison. Since that first case, CeaseFirePA has brought in more than 100 volunteers from all over the City to observe and testify during sentencing hearings. In late fall 2013, CeaseFirePA expanded the Courtwatch program to Allegheny County.
Making a difference in Court
Before every sentencing, CeaseFirePA receives a recommended sentence and a predicted sentence from the Assistant District Attorney handling the case. The District Attorney’s office reports that in approximately 80% of the Courtwatch cases, stronger sentences were handed down than had been predicted. As Bryan Lentz, former Chief of the Philadelphia Gun Violence Task Force explained, “It used to be that felons convicted for illegal gun trafficking in Philadelphia were given a slap on the wrist. I give credit to CeaseFirePA for leveling the playing field through the Courtwatch program. Now, with the community affected by crime represented in the courtroom at sentencing hearings, we are seeing judges recognize the severity of illegal guns, and the sentences are more of a deterrent, and more appropriate, than ever before.”