The Lead

Protesters at Pa. House panel’s hearing on Philly crime were ‘circus animals,’ its chair says

By: - October 3, 2022 9:51 am

State Rep. John Lawrence, R-Chester, speaks at a Dec. 14 House hearing.

By Naiser Warren-Robinson

PHILADELPHIA — A Republican-led state House panel probing surging crime in the state’s largest city concluded its work by taking testimony from law enforcement experts and confronting protests held by supporters of embattled District Attorney Larry Krasner, who’s the target of an impeachment resolution.

Even as a “mother was describing the pain of searing loss after the murder of her son to this committee, at the same time, supporters of the status quo were literally holding a circus outside of the building,” the panel’s chairperson, Rep. John Lawrence, R-Chester, said Friday of the select committee’s first hearing on Sept. 29 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

“This committee will not be drawn into the gutter filled with circus animals when the matter at hand is of such importance,” Lawrence said.

“Those who trivialize or question the legitimacy of this committee and these hearings … are free to do so but will not deter this committee from fulfilling its mission to the people of this city, to the people of Pennsylvania, and to the General Assembly,” Lawrence said.

(L-R) Yvonne Newkirk, Marcia Marra, Patricia Vickers and Sandra Hill protested in support of Philadelphia District Attorney during a hearing at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. They are members of the advocacy group, the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration. They oppose Krasner’s removal because he was elected by the citizens of Philadelphia (Philadelphia Tribune photo).

Greg Rowe, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorney Association (PDAA), told lawmakers that Democrat Krasner’s office was the only county prosecutor’s office in the state that does not belong to the statewide professional group, a situation he termed “unusual.”

The district attorneys’ association was “formed in 1912 for the purpose of providing uniformity and efficiency in the discharge of duties and functions of Pennsylvania’s district attorneys and their assistants,” Rowe told lawmakers. “The association today continues to further its purpose through legislative and policy advocacy, communications and outreach … certain training programs and collaboration with colleagues, officials and stakeholders.”

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According to Rowe, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office withdrew from the association in 2018 due to a disagreement with the association’s policies.

“At the time, the DA told the media that our policies that we support were too punitive and were too focused on incarceration,” Rowe said. “We would obviously disagree with that characterization.”

“We do support laws that keep dangerous and violent offenders off of our streets … and at the same time, we support measures like the clean slate initiative that help individuals with records get jobs.”

Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, provided analysis and recommendations based on data found in a “thorough and comprehensive” study of the investigation, prosecution and sentencing of violations of Pennsylvania’s uniform firearm act (VUFA).”

Bergstrom told the committee that the Philadelphia’s district attorney’s office had tripled the rate of VUFA cases withdrawn since Krasner was elected.

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Bergstrom said the district attorney’s office must approve any charges filed against someone and referred to Krasner as the “the gatekeeper of justice” in Philadelphia.

However, Bergstrom also recommended that the commission be given more time to investigate and collect “qualitative and quantitative data” from individual counties in order to diagnose the situation more effectively.

“The commission recommended that there be more of a study at the county level, getting both what we call qualitative data and quantitative data … more data, for instance, in Philadelphia about what is happening in law enforcement regarding initial contact with individuals and recommended arrests versus what happens in terms of filing (charges).

The committee has said that following the public hearings it will continue its investigation in private.

Naiser Warren-Robinson is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.

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