Michael Untermeyer: Former Republican Wants to Fix “Broken” Criminal Justice System
Michael Untermeyer is a Democrat running for Philadelphia District Attorney, but he wasn’t always an outspoken lawyer and veteran Assistant District Attorney (ADA). When he was 18 he started driving an ambulance in Harlem, NYC. Untermeyer is a graduate of Rutgers Camden, and was hired as an ADA under Ed Rendell.
He spent 15 years as a prosecutor in Philadelphia and also worked in the Philadelphia Office of the Attorney General where he achieved the position of Senior Deputy Attorney General. Untermeyer also worked as a judge pro-tem during the mortgage crisis of the early 2000s, where he helped homeowners take on the banks that had foreclosed on them. He also helped Hurricane Katrina victims in Mississippi through volunteer work with the American Red Cross.
Now he wants to overhaul Philadelphia’s DA’s Office to better serve the citizens of Philadelphia. Untermeyer sees the future of the DA’s office as becoming an advocate for fairness and to stand for the well-being of every Philadelphian.
“The criminal justice system is broken,” Untermeyer said. “Our DA’s office is spending time going after the wrong people. We need a district attorney that is committed to reform.” Untermeyer believes the DA needs to focus more on going after violent criminals and the organizations they are a part of.
Untermeyer touts himself as an expert on white-collar crimes, specifically money laundering. According to him, you are more likely to be prosecuted in Philadelphia for stealing hub caps than stealing money through fraudulent business practices. Untermeyer cites his time prosecuting these types of crimes at the Attorney General’s Office as being helpful in addressing this problem which he believes is being overlooked.
Untermeyer also worked hard to help victims of domestic violence have their day in court. “We really fought to stand up for the rights of people who were victims of family violence,” Untermeyer said.
According to Untermeyer, when he first joined the DA’s Office, no one was interested in prosecuting or even investigating these types of cases. “The judges didn’t want to hear the cases. The police didn’t want to investigate the cases,” Untermeyer said. “People didn’t consider domestic violence to be a crime.”
Untermeyer says he spent 11 years going after big-time drug dealers whom he believes need to be the focus of investigation, rather than low-level drug offenders. “I investigated major drug dealers and their organizations,” Untermeyer said.
Untermeyer wants to go straight to the pharmaceutical companies and work with them to curb the opiate crisis in Philadelphia. “It starts with the pharmaceutical companies,” Untermeyer said. Untermeyer says it’s very easy for people addicted to prescription opiates to slip into taking hard street drugs like heroin. He doesn’t see this as a criminal issue and hopes to take a more rehabilitative approach to opiate addiction.
Untermeyer cites Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program as a possible way to address low-level drug offenses. The program takes people who are charged with minor drug and prostitution crimes and puts them into community-based services as opposed to incarceration. “They’re given a choice. They can go to the police station, or they’ll take them directly to a program, in the squad car where immediately that hour they’re put in a program where they can have help. It gets them out of the system.” According to Untermeyer the cost of something like this is comparable to the $120 a day it costs to house inmates. “You take the money out of the prison’s and move it over,” Untermeyer said.
Untermeyer does support stricter gun laws in Philadelphia. According to Untermeyer, if you are caught walking down the street with an illegal handgun, there is a possibility that you could walk away with probation. Untermeyer wants stricter punishment for people who are caught carrying illegal firearms in Philadelphia. “The first offense, I think there should be real punishment beyond probation,” Untermeyer said.
No one wants to be labeled corrupt like Seth Williams has been, so the bar is set very high for whichever candidate takes this office. “I am not for sale,” Untermeyer said. According to him, he is paying for his campaign largely out of pocket and he says he will hold his staff to the highest level of ethics. Untermeyer also says that he does not and will never take money from criminal defense lawyers.
It is not uncommon for lawyers to donate to political campaigns for elected judiciary officials. The practice is legal, however it puts a cloud over whether the official would be impartial should that attorney be on the other side of the courtroom. “I believe I’m the only candidate that’s gone on record saying that he or she is not taking any money from criminal defense lawyers,” Untermeyer said. “As district attorney I vow to not take any gifts from anyone, anytime, anyplace.”
Untermeyer hopes to use the 300 or so ADA’s as his own liaisons to the community and create a dialogue between residents, police and the DA’s office.
“There are 300 [Assistant] District Attorneys in Philadelphia and I think every Assistant DA, every lawyer in that office better be assigned to a neighborhood or a community and he or she will be responsible for being that community’s advisor for any matters that come before the District Attorney’s Office or the Police Department.” Untermeyer said. “What I hope to do is lead by example. I want to fundamentally make changes to the city. I want to fundamentally serve the people of this city.”