By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — District Attorney Larry Krasner raised alarms on Monday that a proposed $8.7 million budget cut to his office would hamper prosecutions, hobble a new anti-gun violence program, and hurt efforts to hold police accountable.
Krasner pleaded with members of City Council during a budget hearing to reject a 14% reduction to his office’s budget, which Mayor Jim Kenney has put forward in his $4.9 billion spending plan.
“There’s absolutely no way this office can perform properly,” Krasner said during the hearing that was held via video conference.
The first-term district attorney proposed a more than $43 million budget, up 11% over last year’s budget, to pay for 27 new positions, including detectives, and other initiatives, like replacing the office’s aging case management system.
The hires are critical for his office and would ensure prosecutions and the courts function properly, Krasner said.
“Staffing shortages will result in severe difficulty staffing municipal courtrooms, resulting in more senior level [assistant district attorneys] being diverted from more complex criminal investigations,” according to Krasner’s submitted testimony.
Kenney has proposed slashing Krasner’s budget to $33.3 million. The city is facing a $649 million revenue shortfall due to the economic fallout from the novel coronavirus pandemic. The mayor has proposed cuts across departments, a hiring freeze, and other cost saving measures.
The city’s new anti-gun violence initiative, Group Violence Intervention Project, also would be less effective due to the funding cuts, Krasner contended. The project is expected to launch in West Philadelphia and other target areas later this year.
Under Kenney’s proposed budget cuts, Krasner said he could not embed assistant district attorneys in each of the police department’s six divisional headquarters to provide assistance on investigating shootings, a potential first for the city.
Krasner also questioned whether his office could adequately investigate and prosecute police abuse due to the staffing shortages.
“You’re going to have a situation where enforcement is not real; you’re going to have a situation where accountability is not real and that’s really not good for trust and long-term safety of the city of Philadelphia,” he said.
Krasner said policies he has put in place, including reforms to bail and sentencing requests, have contributed to cost savings. Since he took office in January 2018, he estimated that the reductions in the jail population and cost for supervision would lead to $131 million in long-term savings.
City Council President Darrell Clarke, a Democrat, took Krasner to task for the rising homicide rate under the district attorney’s watch. The city has logged 174 homicides through Sunday, up 26% compared to this time in 2019, which was itself a record-setting year for homicides.
Krasner said the spiking homicide rate was “not under control.” He believed drug-related homicides accounted for the overall homicides this year, calling for the city to refocus on addressing the opioid epidemic. He said his office was working to ensure prosecutions continued while the courts were shut down over the pandemic.
But Clarke seemed unmoved by the district attorney’s responses and repeatedly interrupted Krasner’s testimony.
“The courts have been shut down for a pandemic. These [homicide] numbers have been going up over years,” Clarke said, adding, “I want to know what you’re going to do.”
City Council must approve a budget by June 30.
Potential funding for underserved communities
The district attorney revealed that unexpected funding could soon flow to underserved communities.
More than a million dollars was left over from a $3 million fund established last year for victims of the city’s civil asset forfeiture program, some of which was used to fund the district attorney’s budget. The fund stemmed from a 2014 lawsuit over the abuses.
Kranser said the remaining funds would go to areas hardest hit by the asset forfeiture to pay for recreation centers and community programs.
Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.