Pennsylvania lawmakers have passed a bill including a provision allowing the state’s attorney general to prosecute some firearm crimes committed in Philadelphia, and Philadelphia only, according to The Intercept. The provision, which was tacked onto a largely noncontroversial bill, will expire in two years. That happens to be when Larry Krasner—the reformist Philadelphia district attorney—will end his first term.
Krasner’s election in 2017, on a radical platform of ending prosecution of crimes like drug possession and reforming of the justice system as a whole by pursuing decarceration, was a shock to the state’s major power players.
The new law, which impacts only Krasner, was passed by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature and signed by the Democratic governor at the end of last month.
The provision would allow police and local authorities to go directly to the state’s attorney general to pursue crimes that Krasner’s office declined to prosecute.
According to The Intercept, many lawmakers didn’t know what they were voting for. The original bill, which allocated money to fight an epidemic of gun violence in the state, was amended by Republican Rep. Martina White to include the provision apparently targeting Krasner.
“I think the vast majority of my colleagues had no idea this was included,” state House Democratic lawmaker told The Intercept.
From The Intercept:
Indeed, when the bill first came through the House, a different version of it, which did not single out Philadelphia and was more geared toward helping small municipalities gain access to attorney general resources, passed nearly unanimously. It was then quietly changed in the Senate, but done so quietly that even Democrats supportive of Krasner didn’t notice. It passed the Senate unanimously, which suggested to House Democrats that it was still a noncontroversial bill, and it sailed through the lower chamber with the support of almost every representative in the House — except for three Democrats who voted against it. One House Democratic lawmaker from Philadelphia indicated that they believed negotiations over the amendment took place in private so as not to alert the Philly delegation of what would be included.
The few legislators who voted against the bill did so out of other concerns. Even they didn’t know about the provision stripping power from Krasner.
“I understood that the attorney general was interested in getting this passed relatively quickly. And I was assured by his folks that we could talk about it afterwards, about an amendment to an existing law,” Rep. Mary Jo Daley, who voted against the bill out of concern that it would restrict local authorities, told The Intercept. “And I thought that was the best compromise that I could get at that point.”
“HB 1614 started out bad, but was made worse amid the chaos of budget season by singling out Philly. This bill as amended by Republican Philly state rep Martina White was an early Christmas present to the [Fraternal Order of Police] and the Attorney General who can now do an end-run [on] our duly elected district attorney and the criminal justice reforms his office is implementing,” Democratic Philadelphia County Rep. Chris Rabb, another legislator who voted no on the bill, told The Intercept.
Krasner fired 30 prosecutors when he entered office, a sign of his seriousness about his reformist agenda. That move pissed off many established politicians and law enforcement officers. Many of the prosecutors Krasner fired went to work at state Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office. Shapiro, also a Democrat, won his seat in 2016, and was endorsed by Philadelphia’s Fraternal Order of Police, who absolutely hate Krasner.
A statement from the attorney general’s office emphasized the problem of gun violence, and didn’t single out Philadelphia.
From The Intercept:
“The Legislature’s work to grant additional funding is a welcome step as we work to battle the everyday gun violence plaguing Philadelphia. In conversations with legislators during this process, we communicated our Office’s belief that investigations of crime guns—a problem touching every corner of Pennsylvania—would benefit from statewide concurrent jurisdiction for OAG,” spokesperson Joe Grace said in a statement to The Intercept. “The Legislature unanimously voted to grant that jurisdiction only in Philadelphia — a position our Office did not advocate for but was advanced by every member of the Philadelphia delegation. At a time when gun violence is plaguing our cities and towns, we are solely focused on working together with our law enforcement partners to fight back against this epidemic.”
Republican lawmakers have tried paint the provision not as an attempt to undermine Krasner but to “uphold the law” by making sure every case is prosecuted—which amounts to the same thing.
“The Philadelphia DA continues to have the authority to prosecute these crimes, should he decide to start enforcing the law,” Republican Rep. Rob Kauffman, and who helped craft the amendment, told The Intercept. “This wasn’t done statewide because prosecuting these gun offenses doesn’t seem to be a statewide issue.”
Jane Roh, a spokesperson for Krasner, told the Inquirer that the bill was concerning.
Krasner “was elected by an overwhelming margin to push for badly needed criminal justice reforms in one of the most highly incarcerated big cities in the country, and he has serious concerns about what [the law] does, the potential precedent it sets, and what it signifies for the justice movement at large,” she said.
As the movement to install progressive prosecutors as a method of criminal justice reform expands, the pushback against Krasner is one possibility for the kind of opposition these officials could face. In Queens, the district attorney race is currently undergoing a manual recount, as Tiffany Cabán, a reformist endorsed by Krasner, goes up against establishment candidate Melinda Katz.