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In the move to remove DA Larry Krasner from office, a fight over gun violence and convictions

His critics say Krasner's policies have spurred crime. The DA says there is no evidence of that.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, shown in a photo from earlier this year, faces an impeachment effort in the legislature. He has denounced it as politically motivated.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, shown in a photo from earlier this year, faces an impeachment effort in the legislature. He has denounced it as politically motivated.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

As Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner challenges a drive to remove him from office, he’s saying his detractors have his record all wrong.

In a statement attacking what Krasner called the “GOP’s Big Impeachment Lies,” he said his conviction rates for “trial-ready” gun homicides and nonfatal shootings were strong: 83% for fatal shootings and 79% for nonfatal.

Note the caveat “trial-ready.” Krasner’s analysis measured only those cases that survived a preliminary hearing in Philadelphia’s lower Municipal Court and advanced for a trial in Common Pleas Court. Once the many cases dismissed earlier by judges or withdrawn by prosecutors are taken into account, Krasner’s gun-murder conviction rate falls to 74% this year and 50% for nonfatal shootings.

And when all outcomes are counted, Krasner’s overall conviction rate this year for violent crime is just 33%.

So goes the war of statistics and the fierce debate about Krasner, a Democrat, as Republicans in the state House voted largely on partisan lines Wednesday to send an impeachment resolution to the Senate.

“Criminals will again know that their crimes will be prosecuted,” State Rep. Martina A. White, the Northeast Philadelphia Republican who was the proposal’s prime sponsor, said after the vote.

» READ MORE: Why was DA Larry Krasner impeached? Breaking down the charges against him.

Krasner and some independent experts say the impeachment push

was fundamentally misconceived, an attack on his polices in lieu of any real complaint of misconduct in office. Said Krasner after the vote: “They have impeached me without presenting a single shred of evidence connecting our policies to any uptick in crime.”

In an interview Friday, Krasner said the conviction rate in Philadelphia would rebound as the COVID-19 epidemic retreats. He noted that the current backlog of delayed and pending cases was massive — 27,000 cases, or the equivalent of more than a year of arrests.

While San Francisco’s progressive district attorney was recalled by voters earlier this year, Krasner easily won reelection to a second term a year ago. He has pursed an agenda far different than his predecessors, bringing murder cases against Philadelphia police officers and undoing convictions against 25 people deemed to have been innocent or not given a fair trial. He also has had to run the office during the worst of the COVID epidemic, which closed the courts and saddled the system with the backlog of unresolved cases.

Krasner also had a steady personnel churn in his office. Three-quarters of his staff of 340 prosecutors left their jobs during his first four-year term. Some say this has hurt the office’s conviction rate as the defense bar has bested less experienced adversaries.

“When you go up against the heavy hitters in the city, defense lawyer-wise, you get blown out of the water,” one police commander said recently. He asked not to be named, saying he didn’t want to be identified as being critical of the district attorney.

Krasner said, “We certainly have attrition issues,” but many large private law firms faced the same problems, especially with workplaces disrupted by the virus.

At the same time, Philadelphia police have been arresting far fewer suspects in recent years, resulting in a lower caseload for prosecutors.

In 2016, former District Attorney Seth Williams’ last full year in office before he pleaded guilty to corruption charges, police arrested about 40,000 people. This year, they are on track to arrest about 23,000.

» READ MORE: Pa. House names three impeachment managers in the case against Philly DA Larry Krasner

Krasner’s policy shifts, such as a decision not to pursue prostitution cases, has contributed to the fall in prosecutorial caseload. A study included in a report released last month by a state House committee that looked at Krasner’s record said that in his first year in office, 2018, his staff declined to pursue charges in 7% of arrests, a tripling of the declination rate in previous years. The rejected cases were generally narcotics offenses deemed too weak to charge, the report said.

Police First Deputy Commissioner John Stanford said Friday that the decline in arrests by Philadelphia police reflected the impact of COVID and a national pullback in aggressive policing in the wake of murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. Stanford also cited a 2011 court agreement with the ACLU under which city police have been making dramatically fewer stops of pedestrians and cars every year.

“The more people you stop,” Stanford said, the more arrests. He added: “You’ve got to find the right balance.”

Krasner’s office said in a statement Friday that the decline in arrests was the responsibility of Philadelphia police. However, the statement said, police and prosecutors should go after the ”relatively small number of people that are drivers of crime,” adding that law enforcement should focus on the worst offenders, “not entire communities.”

The decline in arrests has mainly involved cases of drug dealing, drunken driving, aggravated assault, and theft, Krasner’s office said.

Philadelphia has been reeling from an increase in homicides, nonfatal shootings, and carjackings since the virus struck. This surge has hit many U.S. cities, including those headed by less progressive prosecutors.

Homicides this year are down 6% from last year’s record-setting high in Philadelphia, but still running at a level far above past years. As of last week, the tally of shootings — deadly and not — is higher than in the same period last year.

Unlike previous DAs, Krasner has been very transparent about his office’s performance. His website includes a Public Data Dashboard that provides a wealth of statistics tracking cases of all kinds, both on a historic basis and year-to-date. (The Inquirer drew upon the figures in the dashboard to calculate the office’s overall conviction rate of 33% for violent crime: murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.)

As Krasner noted in his “Impeachment Lies” statement Tuesday, Philadelphia has long had a relatively low conviction rate.

In a 2008 study based on 2004 data, the U.S. Justice Department found that prosecutors in Philadelphia had the lowest felony conviction rate — 40% — among nearly 40 large urban counties. Philadelphia trailed such cities as Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, and San Diego. The study has not been updated.

In a 2009 series, The Inquirer reported that city prosecutors under former District Attorney Lynne Abraham won convictions in only 37% of violent-crime cases and that in nearly half of those cases, defendants were found guilty of only misdemeanors. The series quoted prosecutors, police, defense lawyers, and others as saying widespread witness intimidation and a large number of fugitives were keys to the problem. The paper traced every violent-crime case filed in 2006 and 2007.

Under Krasner, the House report last month said, the conviction rate has been falling year to year, in “a troubling trend.” Citing data from the District Attorney’s Office, the report found that only 30% of all offenses were dismissed or withdrawn in 2016, but that the failure rate increased to 50% in 2019, 54% in 2020, and 67% in 2021. The rate is 65% this year.

» READ MORE: What was Larry Krasner’s biggest offense? Correctly calling out a racist criminal justice system. | Solomon Jones

According to the DA’s Data Dashboard, the trend was the same for violent crimes. The dashboard reports that about 45% of defendants charged with the four most serious violent crimes were found guilty between 2016 and 2018, but that fell to 34% in 2019 and 29% in 2020 and 2021. The rate has improved to 33% so far this year.

In his Tuesday statement and on his website, Krasner highlighted the higher conviction rate for cases that advanced to Common Pleas Court. But in an interview, William Chadwick, a former top city prosecutor who scrutinized the office’s performance a decade ago as a consultant to the state Supreme Court, said that “from a civic point of view,” an analysis should look at both the Municipal and Common Pleas Court outcomes.

On Friday, Krasner said the failure of cases at the Municipal Court level reflected a series of difficult issues. For one thing, he said, his office has had to cope with the failure of both civilian and law enforcement witnesses to appear in court, with the absence of police witnesses exacerbated with the relatively high number of officers who are on leave on injured status. He also cited the need for better investigative tools for detectives, such as computerizing the drafting of search warrants.

Krasner’s office also said the pandemic had hindered prosecutions, “weakened cases across the board — witnesses disappeared, police moved to different jurisdictions or retired.”

The House committee, in its report, also zeroed in on gun-possession cases. The documents it made public included a study from the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center, an interagency facility funded by the federal government and the city to bring together law enforcement officials. The committee also cited a June study of gun cases by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing. The studies, as well as an Inquirer analysis last year, all found that conviction rates declining since Krasner took office.

The Intelligence Center report was critical of the trend.

“This implies that, even when criminals are caught with a gun, they are swiftly finding out they may not receive as significant a consequence as they had historically,” the study said. “Notably, the likelihood of being arrested is low to begin with. This means that criminals know that their likelihood of getting caught with a gun is slim and, even if they get caught, they feel that they can leave without severe (or any) consequences.”

Krasner has found other parts of the Sentencing Commission report more supportive. As he has pointed out, the study found that Philadelphia defendants convicted of gun charges were more likely to be imprisoned and to serve longer sentences than in the rest of the state.

Staff writer Dylan Purcell contributed to this article.