Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner (Jared Piper/Philadelphia City Council/City & State Pa.)
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner won a hard-fought campaign in 2017 amid a rising wave of dissent over police shootings of unarmed people of color and calls to reform criminal justice policies that harm the nation’s most vulnerable communities.
Five years later, following a resounding reelection victory in 2021, Krasner is among progressive prosecutors across the country who face Republican-backed efforts to remove them from office.
Criminal justice experts call the attacks an affront to democracy and an effort to forestall the criminal justice reform movement that reached critical mass after the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
“A key premise of our democracy is, let people decide what’s right for their community,” Akhi Johnson, director of the Reshaping Prosecution Initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice, said.
District attorneys in California, New York, and Florida who advanced policies to end mass incarceration, cash bail and rethink the approach to prosecuting minor crimes have faced efforts by state lawmakers or Republican Party leaders to remove them from office.
In Florida, GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis invoked a provision of the state constitution to suspend Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, a Democrat, for neglect of duty after he pledged not to enforce laws criminalizing abortion. Warren sued last month to have DeSantis’ action declared unconstitutional.
Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón and San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, both of whom were elected on criminal justice reform platforms, faced recall efforts this year.
Those backing Gascón’s recall didn’t get enough support to put the question on the ballot, but voters in San Francisco voted to remove Boudin from office in June.
Republican lawmakers in New York have pushed for a mechanism to recall Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg after he announced he would not pursue certain low-level crimes.
In Krasner’s case, Republican lawmakers, many from districts far from Philadelphia or its environs, have cited the city’s soaring murder count in the last two years as justification for his impeachment.
The majority-Republican state House passed a resolution in July to empanel a select committee to investigate the Philadelphia district attorney’s office with a goal of establishing support for Krasner’s impeachment.
“For people who don’t live in those areas to come in and say, ‘No no no, we know better than you do,’ certainly raises concerns from a democratic perspective and further raises the question, why not let people vote on the issue,” Johnson said.
Republican state Reps. Toren Ecker, of Adams County, and Josh Kail, of Beaver County, who were among those first to call for Krasner’s impeachment, declined or did not respond to interview requests.
Last week, Krasner filed a lawsuit against Rep. John Lawrence, R-Chester, the chairman of the select committee, and its other four members, asking Commonwealth Court to declare the investigation improper and to bar the committee from proceeding.
In his petition, Krasner argued that the purpose of the committee is to impeach him, which is improper.
It notes that district attorneys who have been charged with crimes , including former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, were not impeached.
Only two elected officials have ever been impeached in Pennsylvania, the most recent being Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen in 1994 after he was sentenced to probation for seeking fraudulent pain pill prescriptions.
Krasner’s suit also asserts that a subpoena seeking records from the district attorney’s office, including the entire case file in a homicide case against a Philadelphia police officer charged with shooting an unarmed Black man in the back, is unenforceable . Releasing the file would violate a state law prohibiting the release of records from a grand jury.
“Therein lies the ultimate irony in this investigation and Rep. Lawrence’s Subpoena to the DAO: “The Select Committee on Restoring Law and Order” is engaged in an investigation that violates the law and legal principles at every turn,” the suit says.
Republican backers of the recall efforts, including the call to impeach Krasner, say their initiatives are about public safety, and that they are speaking for the victims of violent crime.
Ellen Yaroshefsky, a Hofstra University law professor who studies prosecutorial accountability, said that’s cover for conservative lawmakers, some of whom supported overturning the 2020 election results.
“They’re radicals trying to grab power and everything else is just a smoke screen,” Yaroshefsky said. “In many ways, it’s the Republicans saying it’s our way or the highway.”
Fordham Law School professor John Pfaff said examining election results and crime data refutes the notion that those most affected by violent crime want progressive prosecutors removed from office.
Pfaff compared support for the winners in the last two elections for district attorney in Philadelphia and Chicago, where pro-reform candidate Kim Foxx was reelected in 2020, with the locations of gun crimes.
The resulting maps show the areas with the most support for the progressive candidates are also the areas with the highest concentrations of gun crime.
Given the on-going attacks on local district attorney autonomy, just wanted to share these two graphs: Foxx vs. Alvarez in Chicago in 2016, and Krasner vs. Vega in Philly in 2021.
The more red, the more the voting precinct chose the reformer.
Blue dots: gun crimes. pic.twitter.com/7K77M6E2Zq
— John Pfaff (@JohnFPfaff) August 23, 2022
“The fact that Krasner’s support is the best where violence is worst … makes the idea that, ‘We’re stepping in for victims,’ just not true,” Pfaff said.
Pfaff said those critical of prosecutors who take new approaches to fighting crime are also using a lack of clarity on crime data over the last two years to sow misinformation about the incidence of crime in major cities.
The number of people shot, which is independently tracked, peaked in 2021 in Philadelphia at more than 1,800, as did gun homicides at 501. The number of homicides also increased 6 percent across the country
Information about other categories of crime is incomplete in Philadelphia and other major cities.
That’s because the FBI changed the way it collects data from police for its annual Uniform Crime Report. Despite having a decade to prepare, many police departments simply did not change the way they reported crime data, Pfaff said.
On top of that, crime statistics for 2020 are skewed because of the pandemic and resulting lockdowns and business closures.
“Robberies went down. But did they really? There was no one on the streets so maybe the risk of being robbed went up,” Pfaff said.
In San Francisco, where homicides were relatively low in 2020, property crime soared, Pfaff said, and District Attorney Boudin’s detractors used that in their campaign to recall him.
“There are so many types of crime there will always be one that you can try to weaponize as a story,” Pfaff said.
John Holloway, executive director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania, said blaming a prosecutor for trends in crime is too simplistic.
“Gun crime in Philadelphia is an unbelievable problem and I get it, but I dont know of any study that says that is caused by the way Larry Krasner prosecutes crime,” Holloway said.
Kransner’s approach has been to redirect his office’s resources away from prosecuting low-level crimes such as shoplifting, marijuana and prostitution and to not request cash bail for offenses such as drunken driving. In his first year in office, that resulted in 20 percent fewer cases being filed.
Meanwhile, Krasner has focused on holding those in power, including police officers, accountable, preventing wrongful convictions, and promoting alternatives to jail for those with substance use disorders and mental illnesses.
“There are some areas that are getting more attention. There are some that are getting less. Whether that’s a good thing depends on your point of view,” Holloway said.
Rachel Barkow, a law professor at New York University, said being “tough on crime” has traditionally been politically expedient, especially for conservative politicians. Likewise, Republicans were proponents of prosecutorial discretion when it was used to prosecute crimes more severely in minority communities, Barkow said.
Now prosecutors are using their discretion to handle certain types of cases differently.
“That’s the shift. It’s less about what’s the appropriate role of a prosecutor and more about whether they like the outcome or not,” Barkow said.
Barkow said a robust public education effort would be needed to build more support for progressive justice policies among conservative voters, but there is some support among Republican elected officials.
Some conservatives have embraced progressive justice reforms as a cost-saving measure, Barkow said.
“One way that you get republicans to recognize it is that it is very expensive. You’re spending government money on a big bloated initiative that is a failure,” Barkow said.
Religious conservatives have also embraced reform because it fits their belief in the power of redemption.
“A super harsh approach doesn’t allow people to demonstrate they have redeemed themselves,” Barkow said.
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