As advocates for criminal justice reform, we were encouraged to see The Inquirer’s Editorial Board stand up for District Attorney Larry Krasner last week in an editorial criticizing a new measure that seizes the district attorney’s authority to enforce laws in the manner that best serves the people of Philadelphia, who elected him to office in 2017.
This measure, an amendment quietly added to a budget bill at the eleventh hour, gives Attorney General Josh Shapiro the power to prosecute certain firearms violations in Philadelphia, but not elsewhere in the state. It was, as the Editorial Board noted, an assault on our sovereignty and our voice.
And yet the Editorial Board did not go far enough. Undermining Krasner’s discretion is not just an assault on this city’s sovereignty, it is an outright attack on progress and a distortion of reality. In targeting Philadelphia, the measure suggests that Krasner’s approach to firearms violations has been reckless and needs to be checked by outside authorities who know better than our own district attorney.
Krasner was elected to reduce Philadelphia’s reliance on prisons and criminal convictions, which voters recognized only made our communities less stable, less productive, and less safe. But some reports have rushed to link Krasner’s policies to recent shootings, with no empirical evidence to do so. They attack his policy of drug possession while ignoring a long line of research that demonstrates how tough-on-crime drug policies failed to make us safe. And they attack his bail reform policy while ignoring how money bail punishes poverty, not dangerousness.
Other stories have criticized Krasner for diverting more people accused of firearm possession onto probation if it is their first offense, in lieu of reflexively sending them into jails and prisons. But there is no evidence that this approach has had a measurable effect on gun violence in Philadelphia, which is often cyclical, and while there are too many shootings, violent crime is down 5 percent in this city. In many ways, we believe, Philadelphia is as safe now as it’s been in the last decade.
As Emily Bazelon recently wrote in The New York Times, just because someone has a gun on them doesn’t mean they’re a violent shooter or are committing another crime. Some people carry firearms for others, or for personal protection. Whether or not you think those are valid reasons, an automatic prison sentence only makes it harder for them to turn their lives around. In Brooklyn, some young people charged with illegal gun possession are instead being diverted into a program that requires them to meet with a social worker, adhere to a curfew, hold down a job or take classes, and complete community service. The evidence shows that graduates of the program have lower rates of rearrest and felony conviction than peers who were sentenced to prison.
Some of the Inquirer’s reporting has helped fuel a flawed narrative with fear-driven stories deceptively blaming Krasner’s shift away from tough-on-crime policies for imperiling Philadelphia’s public safety.
The city is wisely moving away from the traditional tough-on-crime policies that filled up prisons and jails mostly with black and brown men, replacing them with policies that are smart, not just tough. We likewise need smarter and more responsible reporting. The Inquirer shouldn’t be afraid to lead the way.