I noticed a bit of a surge in Twitter discussions this week among the social justice warrior crowd, many of whom were talking about the new District Attorney for Philadelphia, Larry Krasner. Any time this particular cheering section is popping the champagne corks there’s probably reason to be concerned so I thought we should check it out this weekend. As it turns out, Krasner issued a memo to his entire department (or at least what’s left of it, as we’ll get to shortly) detailing some new marching orders when it comes to criminal prosecutions.
So what’s going to be changing? Pretty much everything, and it’s all bending the arc of justice in the direction of having fewer people behind bars and making sure the ones who are locked up don’t stay there for as long. He’s instructing his staff to seek reduced sentences for some crimes and no efforts to prosecute others. And the changes don’t stop there. (Mother Jones)
The memo instructs prosecutors to cease charging certain offenses entirely—including possession of marijuana, regardless of the weight carried, and prostitution in some circumstances. It also encourages assistant DAs to punish people with house arrest, probation, and alternative sentencing much more frequently, and to seek shorter probation sentences. Krasner’s subordinates must now get permission before seeking sentences of more than six months for a minor probation violation, or more than one year for a more serious one.
“If the goal is reducing mass incarceration, that strikes me as an incredibly significant measure,” says Jonathan Feinberg, a civil rights and criminal defense attorney who has practiced in Philadelphia for more than 15 years. “What trips people up in the criminal justice system most frequently is long periods of probationary supervision. Every little misstep brings court involvement and further punishment,” often with little to no benefit for public safety or rehabilitation, he adds.
A couple of these changes, at least on the surface, aren’t entirely out of the question. For example, jailing people for simple pot possession (in the extremely rare cases where it happens without some aggravating factor) is a waste of time. And locking up prostitutes in this day and age seems crazy. But nearly all of the changes detailed in the memo seem designed as provocative moves intended to go several bridges too far. For example, refusing to prosecute people caught with pot includes any amount of marijuana. So rather than the casual smoker, they’ll also be letting go traffickers who get picked up with pounds of weed in the trunk. I suppose they’ll still confiscate the dope, but this will come as a huge relief to organized crime groups trafficking in drugs.
Philadelphia’s remaining prosecutors will need to get special permission to seek more than a six-month sentence for parole violations. The established state guidelines for plea deals are to be tossed out the window and they are instructed to offer much shorter sentences or, wherever possible, “alternative sentencing” such as home monitoring or counseling. All in all, this should be the cause for a pretty big party this weekend among Philly’s criminal element.
As I hinted at above, there are fewer prosecutors and members of the DA’s office to worry about these new rules than previously roamed the halls and courtrooms. That’s because within days of being sworn in as the new DA, Krasner fired 31 members of the office’s staff, including a third of their homicide prosecutors. Was it because of corruption or incompetence? Nope. According to Krasner, he was simply fulfilling a campaign promise to take the office “in a new direction.” Not everyone saw it that way, however, and some of those receiving pink slips, as well as former prosecutors, accused Krasner of exacting revenge on his former rivals from his days as a civil rights defense attorney. (Philadelphia Inquirer)
Without explanations for the dismissals, speculation abounded about Krasner’s motives. Some suspected he held vendettas against prosecutors with whom he clashed as a defense attorney. Others thought targets may have been picked due to run-ins with Krasner’s onetime peers on the defense bar or his wife, Common Pleas Court Judge Lisa M. Rau, who once oversaw criminal cases.
Richard Sax, a longtime homicide prosecutor who retired last year, said the dismissals appeared “personal and vindictive,” and would cause lasting damage to the office.
“Even if he wanted to institute changes into the core of the system, these people would’ve been instrumental in helping him do that,” said Sax, an outspoken critic of Krasner during the campaign.
Lt. Philip Riehl of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Homicide Unit said: “These career prosecutors were dismissed in a classless and callous manner… The entire system lost today.”
So how will Philadelphia fare under this bold, new leadership style at the District Attorney’s office? Here’s an unpleasant reminder for you. While Baltimore overshadowed the rest of the region, the City of Brotherly Love went against national trends and experienced a spike in murders, going above 300 homicides in 2017, meaning a rise of 13% in the homicide rate. All violent crime and property crime has been on the rise and Philly boasts a per capita crime rate that is far above the average of most cities.
Meanwhile, only a couple hours drive up I-95, New York City has once again logged one of the lowest violent crime rates across all categories seen in many decades over the past twelve months. And they didn’t do it by ceasing to lock people up. They got smart on how and where they enforced the law and took law enforcement to where the crime was happening. In short, they got the real bad guys off the streets while not spending so much energy on the small fry.
But hey… let’s give Krasner a chance. The thing to watch out for this time next year is whether the DA’s office will claim things are better because of the smaller number of criminals in jail or an actual decrease in reports of crimes. If it’s not the latter, the people of Philadelphia may regret getting what they wished for.