By week’s end, the dispute had erupted into a thinly veiled, and in some cases full-throated, blame game, set against the backdrop of a city rethinking how criminal defendants are charged, prosecuted, and sentenced — an initiative accelerated by District Attorney Larry Krasner, who has vowed to transform the prosecutor’s office.
None of the officials who spoke up — including Krasner, Police Commissioner Richard Ross, and U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain — offered conclusive data proving any specific policy responsible for the epidemic of shootings.
So what is driving the violence?
An Inquirer review of data indicates that the answer is more complicated than any one sound bite might allow.
Prosecution of gun cases has changed under Krasner, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office has ramped up its violent-crime caseload, The Inquirer analysis found. And crime statistics continue to fluctuate: Overall violent crime is increasing slightly compared with last year, after it had decreased 5 percent from a year earlier.
Through Thursday, Philadelphia police had logged 154 killings in 2019, an 8 percent jump from the same point last year. The number of shootings had climbed about 6 percent, with 631 victims in nearly six months, police statistics show.
Ross on Monday questioned whether police were arresting more people with illegal guns because “some of these guys [carrying guns] think they’ve figured something out, relative to consequences or lack thereof.”
Although Ross did not blame Krasner directly, the district attorney responded that his office in 2018 pursued a slightly higher percentage of gun cases referred by police.
Using public court data, The Inquirer analyzed about 310 gun cases that were resolved in the last three months of 2017 — just before Krasner was sworn in — and compared outcomes to about 350 cases closed in the last three months of 2018.
The results: Krasner’s office secured a lower percentage of guilty verdicts and saw more cases tossed than the year before.
The decline in convictions — from 61 percent at the end of 2017 to 50 percent a year later — appears almost entirely due to more cases being withdrawn by prosecutors or dismissed by a judge early in the process.
In 2018, about 29 percent of prosecutions did not proceed beyond a preliminary hearing, the analysis shows, up from 18 percent a year earlier.
The reasons were not immediately clear. Cases tossed out early are often doomed by problematic evidence, witnesses failing to appear in court, or a judge believing that prosecutors had failed to make a sufficient argument to proceed to trial.
Krasner’s spokesperson, Jane Roh, said in a statement Friday night that gun prosecutions “are dismissed or result in acquittals for many reasons,” including lack of evidence, failure of witnesses to appear, rulings by judges, and “illegal conduct by police resulting in successful motions to suppress evidence."
“Any statistical analysis that fails to carefully delineate these causes sheds more heat than light,” the statement said.
The Inquirer’s review considered only cases in which a gun violation was the most serious charge — the same metric both Krasner and Ross referenced in their remarks last week.
Criminal justice experts caution against drawing conclusions based on data tracking charging decisions or conviction rates alone. Decisions on bail, how or whether cases are resolved, and what sentence a defendant receives if convicted all help to inform a wider understanding of current prosecutorial trends — and whether there’s a link to the city’s recent uptick in gun violence.
Krasner’s office said a fuller set of data addressing some of those topics would take more time to compile.
Krasner’s office in 2018 also began disposing more cases through a court diversionary program called Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD), which allows defendants to have their record expunged after a period of probation.
During Krasner’s first year as DA, 78 gun-possession cases were disposed of in the ARD program, according to statistics his office provided. In each of the prior four years, the statistics show, no more than 14 cases were diverted to ARD.
Critics of Krasner have said his increased use of ARD offers leniency to those more likely to commit future crimes.
Krasner said in an interview last week that the aim was to avoid adversely affecting a “small category” of people who are otherwise law-abiding citizens and for whom a conviction would cause unnecessary harm.
Change also has come from the new federal prosecutor, appointed in April 2018 by President Donald Trump.
McSwain has vowed to commit federal resources to prosecuting more violent crime, blaming Krasner for failing to uphold the traditional role of district attorney.
Between October 2018 and May 2019, McSwain’s office filed 62 new gun crime prosecutions — more than the 54 filed in all of 2018, and more than in any year since 2012, according to statistics gathered by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
If the current rate is sustained, this year’s total could more than double that of last year.