Monday, September 12, 2022

Attacks on progressive prosecutors 'an affront to democracy'

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, writes Peter Hall of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.

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. 

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.

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.

“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.

 “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.

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