Pennsylvania Legislators Quickly And Quietly Passed A Law That Strips Power From Its Reform-Minded DA
from the dirty-deeds-done-with-amazing-alacrity dept
The residents of Philadelphia elected Larry Krasner as their new DA in 2018. Krasner promised reforms to the criminal justice system. And he delivered. He secured 33 resignations from prosecutors and staff who didn’t feel they could back his reforms. Shortly after this, he received the best possible (inadvertent) endorsement for his reform efforts, one that took the form of criticism from the head of the local police union.
Krasner eliminated cash bail for nonviolent defendants and made it clear he would not tolerate misconduct or abuse by police officers. More importantly, he did more than talk. Two officers were criminally charged for performing an illegal stop of a pedestrian and Krasner secured an indictment from a grand jury against a cop who shot an unarmed man in the back.
Local law enforcement isn’t happy. Neither are many politicians. As Akela Lacy and Ryan Grim report for The Intercept, moves have been made to blunt Krasner’s reform efforts.
Lawmakers in Pennsylvania have quietly muscled power away from reformist District Attorney Larry Krasner, passing new legislation giving authority to the state’s attorney general to prosecute certain firearms violations in Philadelphia — and nowhere else in the state. The provision will expire in two years, or just after Krasner’s first term ends.
The bill silently sped through the legislative process. It was referred to the Judiciary committee on June 11th and signed into law by the governor on July 2nd. That’s amazing turn-time for a bureaucracy. It appears there are plenty of state legislators who prefer their prosecutors to be hard-nosed punishers, rather than actual arbiters of justice who realize the normal way of doing things (cash bail, stiff sentences, over-prosecution of minor crimes) contributes very little to anyone’s idea of “justice.”
Krasner’s office has responded by pointing out the obvious.
In a statement, Krasner’s office said the move is an attempt by the legislature to undermine the will of voters who turned out in record numbers to elect him. “District Attorney Larry Krasner was elected by an overwhelming margin to push for badly needed criminal justice reforms in one of the most highly incarcerated big cities in the country, and he has serious concerns about what Act 58 does, the potential precedent it sets, and what it signifies for the justice movement at large,” said spokesperson Jane Roh, referencing the legislation the new law amends.
Unfortunately, sometimes you have to point out the obvious to put something on the record in black-and-white — something the legislators who hastily shepherded this bill through the state legislature can’t ignore. And there’s more to it than a bunch of legislators yearning to stick it to the new reformer. It appears some legislators were completely unaware targeting Krasner was the goal of this legislation.
Multiple legislators made statements to The Intercept indicating the version the House approved did not match the Senate version, which was apparently surreptitiously changed to narrow the focus of the bill to Philadelphia and Krasner in particular. The version these legislators voted for gave smaller towns better access to attorney general resources. The final bill does none of that. All it does is wrest power away from Krasner and hand it to the state’s AG.
Meanwhile, the AG’s office is claiming this has nothing to do with Krasner — whose power it preempts — and everything to do with the city’s gun violence problem. But this is bullshit because the problem the AG’s office and supportive legislators have with Krasner’s exercise of prosecutorial discretion is that he exercises it too often.
Supporters of the legislation say Philadelphia was singled out not because of Krasner, whose office would still technically have jurisdiction over the offenses, but because the city is home to the bulk of the state’s gun violence. “The Philadelphia DA continues to have the authority to prosecute these crimes, should he decide to start enforcing the law,” Republican Rep. Rob Kauffman, who sponsored the bill and worked directly with White to craft the amendment, wrote in a statement to The Intercept. “This wasn’t done statewide because prosecuting these gun offenses doesn’t seem to be a statewide issue.”
If Krasner passes on gun cases, the AG can now prosecute instead. Prosecutorial discretion means nothing when another prosecutor can push cases dropped by a city DA. The city has found one way to undermine a DA who actually changed things. I’m sure they’ll keep experimenting until they can undo the good he’s done.