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In latest edict, Philly DA Larry Krasner tells prosecutors to seek lighter sentences, estimate costs of incarceration

In a bold new policy announcement, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has instructed prosecutors to seek lower sentences, decline certain classes of criminal charges, and explain why taxpayers should spend money to incarcerate people.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner listens to a question during a news conference at his office in Philadelphia, PA on March 15, 2018. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner listens to a question during a news conference at his office in Philadelphia, PA on March 15, 2018. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff PhotographerRead moreDavid Maialetti

Offer shorter prison sentences in plea deals. Decline certain classes of criminal charges. And explain, on the record, why taxpayers should fork over thousands of dollars per year to incarcerate people.

Those are some of the instructions that Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has outlined for the office's 300 prosecutors — perhaps the boldest set of policies yet of his busy two-month tenure, and in line with his campaign promise to reduce the number of people behind bars.

"Pennsylvania's and Philadelphia's over-incarceration have bankrupted investment in policing, public education, medical treatment of addiction, job training, and economic development — which prevent crime more effectively than money invested in corrections," Krasner wrote in a memo this month to prosecutors that was obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News. "Over-incarceration also tears the fabric of defendants' familial and work relationships that tend to rehabilitate defendants who are open to rehabilitation and thereby prevent crime."

Krasner highlighted one element of the memo at a news conference Thursday: the requirement that prosecutors, when asking a judge to sentence a defendant to prison, specify how much it will cost taxpayers to keep the person behind bars.

Taken in full, the five-page document — which also addresses policies around plea offers, diversion programs, and some charging decisions — is likely to impact thousands of criminal cases in the state's busiest prosecutor's office and one of the nation's most violent cities.

Criminal justice experts said some of the guidelines appeared to be unprecedented, a blend of research and practices touted by reform advocates but perhaps never made so explicit in writing by a top prosecutor.

"The fact that he has put this in a policy paper … I think is a really big step," said Meg Reiss, executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "I personally have not seen it this concrete in one document."

Locally, it was not immediately clear how other criminal justice stakeholders might react. Judges ultimately decide what punishment gets imposed, and some have pushed back in some other scenarios in which Krasner's office has sought more lenient sentences. A prosecutor's office does not have the ability to change the system unilaterally.

Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, declined to offer an opinion on the new practices. "The people of Philadelphia elected DA Krasner, and he has the authority to set policy within his office," he said.

David Heckler, a Republican and former Bucks County judge, district attorney and state legislator, said some of the proposed changes seemed "inappropriate" and could harm the city's safety, despite Krasner's assertions to the contrary.

"If I were an assistant DA in Philadelphia, I'd tender my resignation," Heckler said. "If you take an oath as an ADA, whatever the words, it has to be essentially to endeavor as best you can to protect the people of your jurisdiction and to uphold the law. And I think those directives are inconsistent with that duty."

In his memo, Krasner, a Democrat, justified the shift by noting the city's prison population has grown disproportionately large without significantly impacting public safety, "wasting resources in corrections rather than investing in other measures that reduce crime."

At Thursday's news conference, he said: "A dollar spent in incarceration should be worth it."

To that end, the memo — first reported Wednesday by Slate — says assistant district attorneys must explain at a sentencing hearing why they are seeking a prison sentence of a particular length, and must spell out how much that term will cost taxpayers. The cost of imprisoning a criminal — estimated by Krasner's office to be at least $42,000 annually — is roughly equivalent of the salary for a teacher, police officer, or other city employee, the memo says.

Additionally, prosecutors seeking to add probationary sentences to the end of a  defendant's prison term should limit their requests to 12 months or less, according to the memo. "Any remaining probation," it said, "is simply excess baggage requiring unnecessary expenditure of funds for supervision."

In some crimes, the memo said, prosecutors now are instructed to make plea offers that include proposed sentences below "the bottom end" of the sentencing range listed for each crime under state guidelines. If an assistant district attorney thinks a defendant deserves a higher sentence, the memo says, he or she must get approval from a unit supervisor.

Krasner said the new requirements — which do not apply to homicides or other violent crimes — should not pigeonhole prosecutors into seeking lighter sentences. Rather, he said, the policy will force them to be more thoughtful about penalties they seek.

"It is our feeling that the ADAs will be more careful in what they recommend," he said.

Heckler, the former prosecutor, said the policy seemed to imply that sentences must conform to a certain vision regardless of the facts of the case.

"To across the board say that you're going to go below the standard ranges in every case is making some kind of ideological decision that does exactly what sentencing is not supposed to do," Heckler said.

Krasner said that was not the intention of the policy. And Reiss, of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, applauded him for developing a policy that she said appeared to be "bringing [research] into the actual practice" of running his office.