When Philadelphia voters elected Larry Krasner as district attorney, they knew they were getting a criminal justice reformer.
As promised during the campaign, Krasner is actively seeking to use the power of the prosecutor’s office to reduce mass incarceration.
As district attorney, Krasner has enacted several reforms aimed at changing a criminal justice system that he believes puts too many people in jail for minor offenses.
For example, Krasner has been much more likely than his predecessor to allow defendants in gun cases to enter a diversion program designed for first-time, nonviolent offenders, according to an analysis by The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Opposition to Krasner’s handling of gun law violations has led the state Legislature to pass a law giving state Attorney General Josh Shapiro new unilateral authority to prosecute gun crimes in Philadelphia.
State Rep. Martina White, R-Philadelphia, said her objective in sponsoring the provision is to curb gun violence, calling the concurrent jurisdiction a tool in that effort.
“The whole vision here is just to make sure that everyone is working together to address this,” White said.
Shapiro, a Democrat like Krasner, said he sought “concurrent jurisdiction” with county district attorneys across the state but did not ask for it to be limited to the city, as provided in the version that passed the Legislature last month.
At a news conference in Philadelphia on Tuesday, Shapiro said the gun violence task force’s collaboration will continue.
“People are dying every single day in the city of Philadelphia because of everyday gun violence, and it’s critically important that no one — my office or anybody else — acts territorial. Instead, we all need to do what you see happening here, which is work together to deal with the problems that the people of Philadelphia want us to deal with,” Shapiro said.
Calls for unity are thwarted when the Fraternal Order of Police and its allies undermine the DA’s office by relentlessly campaigning against him, including attacking him on billboards. The FOP is spending much time and resources criticizing the DA instead of working with him to reduce crime. Their efforts will be better served by building trust between police and the community and not making excuses for officers who have engaged in police brutality, misconduct and social media posts with racist, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant messages.
Krasner’s critics believe his approach is sending the wrong message and are partially blaming him for the city’s rise in murders. The city has recorded 172 homicides, or 3 percent more than the number recorded at the same time last year, according to data from the Philadelphia Police Department. The rate of homicides this year is about the same as it was in 2018, when Philadelphia recorded 349, the most since 2007.
Krasner says his critics are spreading misinformation and that his office has not been lenient on gun violence.
For example, he says gun-possession cases are considered for diversionary programs on a case-by-case basis looking at the defendant’s history, whether the gun was lawfully purchased, if the defendant was eligible for a concealed-carry license, and if another crime was committed at the time.
Krasner says his reform approach focuses on nonviolent offenders, such as those arrested for drug possession, not those accused of shootings.
“When the case is not serious, there are cases we will decline [to prosecute] ... for example, our refusal for bringing charges for the criminal possession of marijuana,” he said. “But when it comes to one of the areas where we really bore down ... we are prosecuting more than the prior administration.”
Krasner says systemic solutions are the way to cut violence, and they aren’t going to be fast, but he has some new plans including grouping homicide prosecutions with gun cases and using more secure courtrooms so victims feel safer testifying. He says that depends on the court system and if there is available space to move to a different room.
Studies show that there is a link between a high concentration of poverty and crime, and Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate among U.S. cities with 1 million or more residents.
The federal poverty level for a household with one adult and two children is $20,780. Approximately 400,000 Philadelphians — 26 percent of the city’s total population — are living below the poverty level, reports Tribune writer John N. Mitchell in an article published Sept. 18, 2018, “Breaking poverty: Crime, poverty often linked.”
About half of impoverished Philadelphians — roughly the same number of people who live in Montgomery, Alabama — live in deep poverty, which is approximately $10,000 annually per household.
“The next closest city to us has a [poverty] rate of about 20 percent — that’s 5 percentage points lower than ours,” said Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross in the same article by Mitchell. “Imagine what the reduction in homicides would be if we cut that by 5 (percentage points). It contributes because people, when they are mired in a sense of hopelessness, they tend to see no way out of their circumstances. Desperate people do desperate things.”
Local and state officials and community leaders must work together to fight crime, including increasing jobs and reducing the amount of illegal guns available on city streets.