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The Philadelphia district attorney’s job, explained

Who decides how a person accused of a crime is charged? Can the district attorney end the death penalty? Philly’s criminal justice system has many moving parts. Here’s a guide to how the DA fits in.

From charging to requesting bail, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office plays a major role in the city's criminal justice system. Here's a guide to what the top prosecutor can actually do.
From charging to requesting bail, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office plays a major role in the city's criminal justice system. Here's a guide to what the top prosecutor can actually do.Read moreCynthia Greer

As Philadelphians gear up for this month’s primary election and consider choices for the city’s top prosecutor job, the candidates say the future of criminal justice in the city is at stake.

Democratic challenger Carlos Vega, a former prosecutor, has pushed a message centered on gun violence and public safety. He says incumbent District Attorney Larry Krasner’s reform-minded philosophy has emboldened criminals during a spike in shootings.

As Krasner runs for reelection, the former civil rights attorney has defended his record on law enforcement, saying decreasing incarceration rates and exonerating those who are innocent hasn’t gotten in the way of prosecuting violent crime. He says police are solving fewer homicides and bringing weaker evidence.

It’s been a campaign of back-and-forth and finger-pointing over arrests, charging, bail, and sentencing in Philadelphia, and some have wondered: What can the city’s district attorney actually control?

Here’s a guide to what the largest prosecutor’s office in Pennsylvania does.

What does the district attorney do?

Under Pennsylvania state law, county district attorneys are responsible for representing the “Commonwealth” — a.k.a. the government — by charging people accused of crimes and prosecuting them.

In Philadelphia, the District Attorney’s Office (DAO) employs about 600 lawyers who handle tens of thousands of criminal cases each year. The office also employs its own investigators who work some cases independently and others in conjunction with other law enforcement agencies.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania elects most judges. Here’s how the process works.

Who decides how someone is charged?

In general, Philadelphia police decide when to make arrests in the city. Once someone is arrested, police file a report in the city’s records database, the Preliminary Arraignment Reporting System, or PARS.

The District Attorney’s Office decides what charges to bring. Assistant district attorneys (ADAs) who work in the DAO’s Charging Unit review the records to make the decision, usually within a few hours of arrest. They also review arrest warrants, which authorize police to take someone into custody.

Since 2012, the Philadelphia DAO has also had a Diversion Courts Unit. Attorneys in this office review cases to identify people eligible for court-monitored rehabilitative and supervision programs, to divert them from traditional lines of prosecution. There are options for a variety of people facing charges — often for nonviolent crimes — including first-time offenders, sex workers, and people who have mental-health or substance-use disorders.

Who decides if someone is incarcerated or released on bail?

A civil officer known as a magistrate or bail commissioner. Once someone is arrested and charged with a crime, they typically appear in court in person or via video conference within hours.

During the proceeding, called a preliminary arraignment, the magistrate considers bail requests from the DAO and an advocate for the accused, like a defense attorney or representative from the Defender Association of Philadelphia. The magistrate considers the seriousness of the charges, the criminal history of the accused, and the defendant’s ability to pay.

When considering cash bail — which proponents say incentivizes defendants to show up to court — a magistrate can do a few things:

  1. Release the defendant on their own recognizance, meaning the person is released without having to pay and signs paperwork saying they will return for their next court date

  2. Deny bail, effectively ordering the person detained until trial (which is required if the person is charged with first- or second-degree murder)

  3. Set cash bail, meaning the defendant may be released from custody by paying the court, but will be kept in custody if they cannot or do not pay

In Philadelphia, defendants can be released from custody by posting 10% of bail and using a bail bond. For example, a person whose bail is set at $25,000 can be released by paying $2,500.

» READ MORE: In Philly, your race predicts whether you’ll be locked up or go free until trial, study says

Anyone in the city with bail set at less than $250,000 and who is incarcerated for more than a week is eligible for an early bail review hearing, an individualized hearing in front of a judge that is more robust than a preliminary arraignment.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys can also petition the court to reconsider bail and pretrial detention based on a variety of factors, including reductions or additions of charges, witness tampering, or re-arrest.

What about guilty pleas and sentencing?

The majority of criminal cases in Philadelphia are not decided by a jury or as the result of a trial, but instead are plea bargains struck between the defendant’s lawyer and the DAO.

Under these negotiations, a prosecutor can agree to accept a guilty plea on a charge in exchange for dropping more significant charges that carry longer sentences. The district attorney plays a critical role in determining how that happens. For example, Krasner asked his assistant district attorneys to seek shorter prison sentences and probation terms when negotiating certain plea deals.

Ultimately, a judge must accept a plea deal and impose a sentence.

» READ MORE: The Probation Trap: How lenient sentences can lead to harsh consequences

Can the district attorney abolish the death penalty?

District attorneys can’t unilaterally outlaw capital punishment in their jurisdictions, a move that would likely be up to either Congress, the state legislature, or, some argue, the courts. But a district attorney can curb its use by choosing not to seek the death penalty and, often, negotiating plea deals that send those convicted of the most serious crimes to prison without the chance of release.

A district attorney can also display a willingness to overturn an existing death sentence by withdrawing challenges to appeals filed by people on death row, who have a constitutional right to exhaust all legal options before being executed.

While the death penalty is legal in Pennsylvania, the state currently has a moratorium on executions that was put in place by Gov. Tom Wolf. The last time the state executed a person involuntarily — meaning they didn’t abandon their own appeals — was in 1962.

What about influencing policy?

While district attorneys can’t change the law themselves, they have the clout to lobby lawmakers and the standing to petition courts to do so. For example, Krasner has asked the state Supreme Court to declare the death penalty unconstitutional. He’s also asked the courts to reconsider a law that allows Pennsylvania police to kill fleeing felony suspects.

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association also wields significant power to influence lawmakers in Harrisburg and lobby legislators on policies that affect crime and justice.

Reminder: Here’s whois on the ballot in Philly

The municipal primary election will be May 18. You can check your voter registration status on the state’s website.

  1. Chuck Peruto (running unopposed)

» READ MORE: Read more: The full guide to voting in the municipal election on May 18