By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — District Attorney Larry Krasner has continued to blame the coronavirus pandemic for the ongoing spike in gun violence as he enters the final weeks of his reelection bid in the Democratic primary.
On Monday, in a West Philadelphia Baptist church, Krasner said the pandemic has hampered policing and city courts and has shut down critical community services and resources, like recreation centers, community pools, schools and summer jobs programs.
When those community services safely resume, Krasner said a “significant” drop in gun violence in Philadelphia and those nationwide would follow. Gun violence has risen in cities across the United States during the past year.
“When we get to that point, there’s absolutely no question, all over the country, we are going to see significant reductions in the level of gun violence,” Krasner said.
Krasner, who took office in 2018, is facing Carlos Vega in the May 18 Democratic primary. Charles Peruto Jr. is running unopposed in the Republican primary.
Vega said in an email that homicides and shootings have increased under Krasner because “he has refused to prosecute violent cases.”
“The violence we’re witnessing isn’t only about the pandemic, it’s also about Larry’s inability to use the tools of his office to save lives,” Vega said.
While police arrests for Violations of the Uniform Firearms Act (VUFA) have steadily risen in recent years, Krasner’s office conviction rate has dropped. VUFA charges can range from misdemeanors to felonies, the latter of which can result in years in prison for a conviction.
The Philadelphia district attorney’s VUFA conviction rate went from 71 percent in 2015 to 53% in 2020, while its VUFA dismissal/withdraw rate increased from 18 percent to 38 percent during the same time. VUFA charges have risen from nearly 1,000 in 2015 to more than 2,000 in 2020.
The First Judicial District, the city’s courts, closed when the pandemic arrived in Philadelphia in March 2020. Some preliminary hearings and bench trials restarted in summer 2020, while jury trials resumed again in March.
Krasner defended his office’s record on prosecuting gun crimes again on Monday, saying his office had a nearly 85% conviction rate for fatal and non-fatal shootings when the first COVID-19 case was reported here. The criminal justice reforms he has brought to the district attorney’s office have not been at the expense of prosecuting crimes, he added.
“Reform goes hand in hand with focusing on the most serious crimes,” Krasner said. “And the most serious crimes include shootings, and they include gun homicides. If you are involved in using a gun to commit any crime, our office will prosecute you and we will prosecute you very vigorously.”
Vega said the city needs short-term solutions to ensure “fair, yet meaningful consequences to violent crimes,” as well as long-term solutions.
“We can’t afford to choose between reform and safety. We need both,” Vega said.
The Mount Carmel Baptist Church was the site of Krasner’s weekly gun crimes update. He was joined by Councilmember Curtis Jones, state Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, and others.
Deborah Watson-Stokes, supervisor of the district attorney’s office municipal court unit, also said a new program allows for preliminary hearings to be held virtually, permitting witnesses to testify while at the district attorney’s office rather than the Stout Criminal Justice Center or a detention center.
The program has been used for 36 preliminary hearings to date in cases that include burglary, robberies and firearms, she said.
Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.