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Philly DA Larry Krasner launches data website aimed at tracking his office’s impact

Krasner’s office wants its Public Data Dashboard to allow the public to more easily access data and help "hold the District Attorney accountable for ending mass incarceration and mass supervision without endangering public safety."

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner talks about a new website to disseminate criminal justice data during a news conference at the DA's Office in Center City Philadelphia on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner talks about a new website to disseminate criminal justice data during a news conference at the DA's Office in Center City Philadelphia on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office says it has charged 26% fewer cases so far this year than through the same date in 2014.

Prosecutors under the direction of DA Larry Krasner, who was sworn in last year on a pledge to curb mass incarceration, also say they have dramatically reduced the pursuit of retail theft cases: This year it has charged 268 people for that offense, down from more than 1,900 through the same date five years ago.

And of the 143 homicide cases resolved this year, the office reports that 76% have resulted in a conviction — though it did not specify if that was for murder or another charge — down from 88% through the same date in 2014.

These stats and others were published on a new website that Krasner’s office launched this week, which the city’s reform-oriented prosecutor hopes will offer insight into the criminal justice system and his efforts to change it.

At a news conference Thursday, Krasner called the effort “maybe the most important announcement we’ve made to date,” saying it will allow citizens to connect with and evaluate the prosecutor’s office in new ways, rooted in data.

The site comes with some self-admitted and significant caveats.

Case-level data are not available; instead they are organized into daily summaries. Those summaries are populated by offenses categorized and tracked by incident type — a determination made by police early in the process — not by the type of charges that prosecutors decide are appropriate. And the website currently does not include demographic information.

Still, Krasner’s office pledges that the site — dubbed the Public Data Dashboard — will evolve, with the goal of allowing the public to more easily access data on topics including charges, bail, and case outcomes.

Here are some early takeaways:

‘Future years of incarceration’ dropping

In a video posted on the website, Krasner says that the most important question for his office is: “How many future years of jail or supervision are we generating? ... If we are careful in our sentencing recommendations and try to do individual justice, on average those sentences should be getting shorter, and overall the total number of years of those sentences should be reducing.”

According to the office’s data, the metric has been decreasing under Krasner.

Krasner’s office says that during his administration, the number of “future years of incarceration” generated through Oct. 2 is almost half what it was through the same date in 2014.

The metric is calculated by determining which defendants have been sentenced on a given day, totaling up their years sentenced to incarceration, and multiplying those totals by a set of assumptions about what percentage of a sentence an average inmate actually will serve.

The year-to-date total of “future years of supervision” — a similar metric designed to estimate how long defendants have been ordered to spend on probation or parole — has been slashed by 62% when comparing this year with 2014, Krasner’s office says.

Judges impose sentences, so it is not clear how much of the decreases are attributable to prosecutors’ sentencing recommendations. Shortly after he was sworn in, Krasner issued a memo instructing his staff to offer shorter prison sentences and probation terms in plea deals.

Another factor that likely contributed to the dip is that fewer defendants have had a chance to reach sentencing, as Krasner’s office has been charging fewer people.

Fewer cases, more withdrawn

The most significant decrease in terms of charging decisions, Krasner’s office reported, was in property crimes.

This year, prosecutors have approved charges in 2,833 cases of burglary, theft, or related offenses, the data show. That represents a 41% drop from the year-to-date total in 2014.

(Prosecutors said they categorized offenses on the website based on police determination of each incident, as opposed to classifying each offense by the type of charge prosecutors ultimately filed.)

Retail theft represented the most significant drop. After taking office, Krasner instructed his staff to charge retail theft in most cases as a summary offense, which are often referred to as non-traffic or nuisance citations. They aren’t included in Krasner’s database.

As far as outcomes, the data show that 52% of cases resolved this year have been withdrawn or dismissed, the highest year-to-date ratio of any year included in Krasner’s data. Jane Roh, a Krasner spokesperson, said a backlog of untested drug kits in the Police Department’s lab had contributed to this year’s case withdrawal rate.

At the same time, there was a drop in the percentage of cases resolved through Oct. 2, resulting in a guilty plea or verdict: 33% this year, compared with 50% in 2014 and 2015.

Supporters appreciative

At his news conference, Krasner touted “the unlimited potential” of the site, adding that he believed it could cut through a narrative of “fear-driven fiction” about criminal justice and efforts to reform the system.

Hannah Sassaman, policy director of the Media Mobilizing Project, an advocacy group that supported Krasner’s candidacy, said data transparency “was a major demand of the coalitions” that backed him. She called the new website “a big step in helping Philly communities to see and understand the workings of the criminal legal system in our own community.”