Reforms Could End US’ Reputation as Prison Nation
A newly elected Philadelphia District Attorney has set his sights on downsizing mass incarceration. His common-sense policies have put prosecutors nationwide on notice that the public might be in the mood for a new approach to criminal justice.
If his style of common sense justice can escape a rhetorical cage that could subsume his practical reforms to partisan political branding, the right-sized prosecution strategy Larry Krasner introduced in Philadelphia could be a model for criminal justice reform nationwide.
He implemented bail bond reforms, ending prosecutors’ practice of systematically asking for cash bail in non-violent felony cases. He stopped prosecution of marijuana possession cases. Instead, he shifted his focus in the war on drug addiction to civil court, where he went after makers of prescription drugs. He joined the Philadelphia mayor in filing a lawsuit against manufacturers of commonly prescribed opioids.
He effectively decrimalized prostitution by barring prosecution of sex workers who have fewer than three prior convictions. He told staff to handle shoplifting of merchandise worth less than $500 as summary offenses – meaning tickets similar to loitering or jay-walking.
Under Krasner’s leadership, Philadelphia prosecutors steer defendants toward rehabilatative diversion programs. They no longer seek long probationary periods after incarceration. Krasner requires assistant district attorneys to state on the record the costs of incarceration – as much as $1 million for a 25 year prison term – and explain the benefits to be gained from the cost whatever incarceration they request.
Soon after taking office, Krasner outlined his policies in a staff memo that found its way onto the Internet. Highlights of policies declared in the memo include:
- Decline to prosecute all marijuana possession, purchase and paraphernalia charges,
- Decline or withdraw from prosecution of all prostitution cases where the accused has fewer than three prior convictions, diverting all other cases to a rehabilitation-oriented court,
- Allow defendants accused of selling marijuana to request diversion instead of prosecution,
- Allow first-time DUI defendants to apply for a diversion program,
- Allow responsible law-abiding gun owners charged with unlawful carry to request diversion,
- Offer reduced-sentencing plea deals for crimes not including homicide, violence, sexual assault, felon in possession of a weapon, economic crimes involving more than $50,000 or crimes involving integrity of the judicial system,
- Seek house arrest, probation or other alternatives where sentences would otherwise be less than two years’ incarceration,
- Prosecutors must state on the court record what are the costs and benefits of a recommended sentence,
- Request no more than 12 months of post-incarceration probation,
- Request shorter probation where no incarceration is sought,
- Request no incarceration for most technical violations of probation,
- Request nor more than two to four years where violation of probation involves commission of an subsequent crime.
- Seek specific approval from a supervisor when an assistant district attorney seeks deviation from newly recommended guidelines.
After his election, Krasner said he would focus prosecution efforts on the small portion of criminals who commit most of the city’s crime. He said the city cannot otherwise incarcerate its way out of an increasing violent crime.
The anti-death-penalty DA’s more lenient approach to some decades-old murder cases has upbraided some families. In March, in response to a media lawsuit, a Philadelphia judge ordered the DA to release names of 29 police officers on a “do not call list.” That list of officers whose credibility could cause problems for prosecutors predated Krasners election.
After taking the oath of office on Jan. 2, lifelong criminal defense attorney Larry Krasner fired 31 staffers, including career prosecutors. News reports called it a purge. In reality, it as about 6 percent of staff in an agency with more than 500 employees.
Some of the fired staffers had been implicated in maintaining a slush fund replevined with money seized under civil forfeiture laws. Portions of that money had allegedly increased the official earnings of a DA staffer who served as campaign manager for a DA who pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges the same year Krasner was elected.
Philadelphia voters elected Krasner less than 6 years after he sued the city and police for unlawful arrests of Occupy Philadelphia protesters. The city settled that case for $200,000.
The DA’s official phila.gov Web includes among his career high points pro bono representation of protesters involved in “social justice” movements, including Black Lives Matter, ACT UP, anti-gun clergy, Casino-Free Philadelphia, Occupy Philly, Grannies for Peace and DACA Dreamers.
After working 5 years as a public defender, the 1987 Stanford Law School grad launched a private practice in 1993 specializing in criminal defense and police misconduct matters. He told media his experience as a defense attorney prepared him to work as a prosecutor because criminal defense attorneys must anticipate the other side’s moves.
Ironies in Krasner’s election abound. It’s not just a career defense attorney elected to be a city’s top prosecutor. His campaign funding by a billionaire investor advanced the platform of street-level protesters who often cry out against the role of money in politics. George Soros reportedly contributed around $1.5 million to a super PAC created solely to advance Krasner’s campaign. The Soros money reportedly comprised the vast majority of Krasner’s campaign war chest.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Soros has spent more than $10 million on DA races nationwide, including those in Chicago, Orlando, Houston, Ohio and Shreveport, La.
Under the hood, the irony of a billionaire’s campaign spending to advance causes first promoted in apparently grass-roots movements might not be so stark. Grass roots movements often gain national prominence only after ample funding from familiar sources. Wealthy funders direct their resources toward building alliances around issues that matter to large numbers of prospective voters.
The lesson for anyone using devisive strategies to gain an edge in electoral politics might be that divisive approaches can be self-limiting. Tough-on-crime campaigns that target people for non-violent, victimless offenses might appeal to voters for a while, until indiscriminate use of criminal justice system begins to alienate large segments of the population.
Political movements built on the notion of individual liberty will do well to notice the opportunities advocates of “social justice” politics are finding to gain ground in communities affected by decades of poorly restrained criminal justice.