Philadelphia has enjoyed home rule since 1952, at least in theory. Harrisburg lawmakers have made a habit of nipping away at the city’s ability to govern itself. In the 1990s, they took away gun control. In 2001, they took over the Parking Authority and the schools. Last year, they took Philadelphia’s ability to regulate tobacco sales. Last week, Harrisburg took away Philadelphia’s discretion in the prosecution of gun laws by allowing the office of Attorney General Josh Shapiro to prosecute gun-related crimes independently from the office of District Attorney Larry Krasner. The bill passed almost unanimously. Gov. Tom Wolf signed it into law.
According to the new law, for a period of two years, the attorney general will have “concurrent jurisdiction” in Philadelphia on gun offenses, such as illegal possession and sales. Anywhere else in the state, these crimes fall under the jurisdiction of the county’s DA. While the attorney general works in collaboration with local DAs, the final decision to prosecute or not is left to the DA. Under concurrent jurisdiction, the Attorney General’s Office can investigate and prosecute crimes unilaterally and without any consideration from the DA.
In other words, this means if the state is unsatisfied with the decision of Philadelphia’s DA not to pursue a gun case, the attorney general can override that decision.
The original bill was intended to help local law enforcement agencies around the state collaborate on gun crimes, but at the eleventh hour, Rep. Martina White, a Republican from the Northeast, amended the bill. Some legislators told the news site The Intercept that they didn’t know about the Philadelphia-specific amendment when they voted on the bill in the frenzy to pass the budget.
The decision to limit the attorney general’s concurrent jurisdiction to Philadelphia for two years is not random. Krasner has been criticized by his political opponents for being too soft on crime — and his term is up in about two years.
Shapiro and Krasner already work together as a part of the Attorney General’s Gun Violence Task Force, which secured an extra $2.5 million in this year’s budget. According to the Attorney General’s Office, the collaboration will continue. Shapiro took to Twitter to say that he does not plan to unilaterally use this new authority to go around DA Krasner. That’s good.
The issue with the new bill is not criminal justice but home rule. Philadelphia has the right to govern itself. But time and again, Harrisburg undermines this sovereignty. It is especially audacious for Harrisburg to intervene with the pretense of preventing gun violence, considering that for decades that state has been preempting Philadelphia from enacting and enforcing its own gun control measures.
Whether you agree with Krasner or not, it is in the interest of everyone in Philadelphia that our elected officials not be undercut by Harrisburg. Otherwise what’s the point of our local elections?
Lawmakers who claim they didn’t know what they were voting on should introduce a bill to remove the language about Philadelphia from the bill. Philadelphia’s leaders should stand united and send a message to Harrisburg: Get off our lawn.