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Could a new Pa. law strip control over gun prosecutions from Philly DA Larry Krasner?

As public debate rages over gun violence, state legislators have quietly passed a law that targets the city, giving the state Attorney General’s Office equal jurisdiction to the district attorney in prosecuting certain gun-related cases.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry KrasnerRead moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

As public debate rages over Philadelphia’s gun violence epidemic, state legislators have quietly passed a law that targets the city, giving the state Attorney General’s Office equal jurisdiction to the district attorney in prosecuting certain gun-related cases.

The provision, included in a bill signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf last week, was proposed by State Rep. Martina White, a Republican from Northeast Philadelphia and an ally of the city police union, which has frequently criticized District Attorney Larry Krasner over his stated goal of reducing incarceration. The provision sunsets in two years, a few months before the end of Krasner’s first term.

Jane Roh, a spokesperson for Krasner, said in an email that the office was concerned about the bill’s potential impact.

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,” Roh said.

Rep. Chris Rabb, a Philadelphia Democrat who was one of the few lawmakers to vote against the bill, called it a “legislative boondoggle that has yet again punished Philadelphia for fighting on its own behalf, and will supplant the widely embraced priorities of a duly elected district attorney with the backroom agenda of the special interest groups who feel most threatened by his reforms.”

White said the bill was strictly a response to the city’s gun violence epidemic. Behind the scenes, officials were discussing how Krasner’s office and that of Attorney General Josh Shapiro would continue to interact in a new legal landscape that apparently neither prosecutor sought. Krasner and Shapiro are both Democrats.

The bill’s main sponsor, State Rep. Rob Kauffman (R., Franklin), said in an email Monday: “The DA continues to have the authority to prosecute these crimes, should he decide to start enforcing the law."

The legislative effort began last month, when state House members including White and Jared Solomon, a Philadelphia Democrat, proposed a bill that would have granted the Attorney General’s Office “concurrent jurisdiction,” alongside district attorneys, to prosecute cases of illegal gun possession and illegal gun sales or transfers, Solomon said.

The idea, according to Solomon, was to provide more resources in the fight against gun violence. But after that bill failed to advance, White proposed the Philadelphia-only provision as an amendment to another bill, saying she believed it was important for legislators to bring more resources to bear on gun violence in the city.

“We heard loud and clear from the police commissioner [Richard Ross] that illegal gun arrests have jumped in 2019, and we felt this was really appropriate, because it allows the attorney general to assist in addressing those types of crimes,” White said.

The two-year time period, she said, was meant to allow the initiative to exist as a pilot that could be evaluated for statewide expansion.

The law’s potential impact remained unclear Monday. A planned Monday morning news conference that Krasner and Shapiro were expected to attend concerning funding for the Gun Violence Task Force, a joint initiative between state and city prosecutors, was abruptly canceled.

Meanwhile, Lindsay Vaughn, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association — a lobbying group for prosecutors that Krasner quit last year — said in an email that “public safety is enhanced when law enforcement agencies collaborate,” but that “any further expansion” of the AG’s concurrent jurisdiction “will require additional analysis.”

White said she had not studied the logistics of how the law might play out in Philadelphia. And Ross said he was “not familiar with the nuances” and had not determined how or if the legislation might impact his department’s handling of gun investigations.

Lauren Ouziel, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches at Temple Law School, said federal and local agencies have long navigated concurrent jurisdictions. How cases move through the system often depends on personal relationships or formal mechanisms for referrals, she said.

“The idea of local law enforcement shopping around their cases is not anything new," Ouziel said. “It sounds like the state legislature added on a new customer [police] can bring cases to.”

Joe Grace, a spokesperson for Shapiro, said in an email that the office had supported concurrent jurisdiction statewide, which prosecutors feel can help in tracking guns used in crimes. The office did not advocate for the Philadelphia-specific amendment, Grace said.

John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 and one of Krasner’s most frequent critics, said that he had been unaware of the provision and that the union “had no part in that whatsoever.” But, he added, he supported the idea.

Mayor Kenney’s administration also was not consulted on the legislation, spokesperson Mike Dunn said, "but we welcome all assistance from the Commonwealth to prosecute crimes that contribute to gun violence in Philadelphia.

“In addition to these types of efforts, we would welcome efforts by the General Assembly to pass common sense gun safety laws that would make our city safer.”

Solomon, the Northeast Philadelphia Democrat who worked with White on the amendment, pointed out that the delegation also had secured an additional $2.5 million for the Gun Violence Task Force as part of the state’s $34 billion budget.

Rabb called White’s provision a “poison pill” inserted at the end of a busy budget season, saying it would “severely impair DA Krasner’s ability to continue his office’s work on criminal justice reform toward bolstering community safety and racial justice.”