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DA Larry Krasner pitched judges on ending Philly’s probation addiction. Will they go for it?

While anyone on probation or parole can already petition for early termination, the DA is suggesting action on a larger scale.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.Read moreHeather Khalifa / File Photograph

On any given morning at Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center, an observer can wander into a courtroom and hear a judge remarking pointedly (sometimes, griping openly) about some new policy instituted by Larry Krasner, the defense-lawyer-turned-district-attorney who in 16 months in office has upended many practices of the city’s criminal-justice machinery.

Into that fractious climate, Krasner has launched yet another norm-shattering proposal: a letter to all Common Pleas and Municipal Court judges asking them to give a break to people who’ve done well under probation or parole.

Krasner — who on March 21 announced an internal policy to seek shorter terms of supervision going forward — asked the judges to work with him in looking back at those who are already on probation or parole, in order to consider closing out their cases early. In the letter, dated that same day and obtained by The Inquirer, he wrote that the DA is interested in supporting groups of petitions “consistent with each judge’s independently stated criteria. Obviously, each judge is free to participate or decline to participate.”

Although anyone on probation or parole can already petition for early termination, the DA is suggesting action on a larger scale.

The letter seeks to reinforce Krasner’s point that Philadelphia is among the most supervised jurisdictions in the nation: More than 40,000 people, or one out of 22 adults, are monitored by the county probation and parole department. That supervision can last for years or decades because state laws allow for some of the longest probation terms in the nation.

Under his proposal, interested judges might set out criteria for terminations that could be conducted en masse without hearings. For example, some judges might allow terminations for those with three years on probation or parole without a violation; others might approve termination after two years for good candidates convicted of nonviolent offenses only.

According to the letter, the DA envisions that the petitions would be filed by, or in collaboration with, the Defender Association of Philadelphia. A spokesperson for the Defender Association declined comment.

In Krasner’s letter, he emphasized each judge’s discretion in any early termination decision: “We respect your independence — as should be clear from our demonstrated commitment after 15 months not to abuse the judiciary via the press and via other means, as was done at times in some prior [District Attorney’s Office] administrations."

Krasner says he has received calls from a number of judges eager to participate.

“We have received a lot of interest from many members of the judiciary, and the Defender and I are looking forward to a collaboration that will allow these judges to do what they want, according to their standards,” he said in an interview.

Still, the judges receiving the letter did not, in all cases, believe that their independence was being respected.

Some believed that the message contained a veiled threat to litigate the issue through the media.

One person familiar with the conversations, who declined to be identified because only court leadership is authorized to speak to the media, said an “emergency meeting” was called to discuss Krasner’s pitch. It’s not that judges are opposed to probation reform, the person added. “It’s about usurping judicial authority. Mr. Krasner wants to be the judge, the DA and the public defender all in one. This is out of his lane.”

“Many judges wouldn’t even open the email," the person added. "They believe Krasner’s missive is ex parte.” The legal term refers to impermissible communication with a judge outside the presence of all parties to any given case. (Keir Bradford-Grey, the chief of the Defender Association, was copied on the letter.)

Lauren Ouziel, a professor of law at Temple University, said the communique does not appear to represent such a violation.

“In a functional system, the chief prosecutor does — and should — reach out to judges to discuss whether and how existing court processes and procedures might be altered, and why such changes might be a good idea,” she said. “That sort of reaching out to the bench is normally not considered a violation of the rule against ex parte communications, especially where the other main institutional player, the chief defender, is included in the conversation.”

The administration of the First Judicial District declined to respond to questions about the proposal; instead, a spokesperson provided a statement:

“Court leadership remains committed to working with our partners to effectuate criminal justice reform. And our individual judges will continue to make their decisions objectively in a thoughtful, judicially responsible manner, consistent with the rules and procedures to which the judiciary are bound.”