On Monday afternoon, news broke that four people were shot and killed "execution style" in a West Philadelphia basement, bringing Philadelphia's 2018 death toll to 302, just 13 fewer than in all of 2017 — positioning Philadelphia to match or exceed last year's murder toll.
Gruesome events like this are exactly the type of incidents that make people lose their appetite for criminal justice reform. But not all incidents that end in a killing are the same, and yet our criminal justice system has a one-size-fits-all approach for dealing with them.
That's a problem. Structural reform of the criminal justice system must include a nuanced approach to the prosecution and sentencing of all crimes, including murder. It is not only the moral thing to do — there is evidence to support that it will create the most significant change.
In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner is leading the charge as one of the only DAs in the country that does not limit his reform to the prosecution of nonviolent crimes.
Recent reporting in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Samantha Melamed and Chris Palmer shows that Krasner is taking a different approach to charging and sentencing murder, arguably the hardest offense for which to sell the idea of reform.
Breaking with long-held tradition, Krasner is no longer seeking to charge any killing that happens in the city with the highest possible charge — first-degree murder that carries a sentence of life without parole or death. Instead, Krasner intends to use the full spectrum of murder charges.
There is a range of homicide charges — from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree murder — for a reason. When taking into account the legal components of a homicide — malice, intent, disregard for human life, premeditation — there is a big difference between a person who executed four people in a basement to, for example, Michael White, who ended up stabbing Sean Schellenger after an altercation between the two next to Rittenhouse Square. Both deserve accountability, but also for other factors to be taken into account. Even under public pressure, including from Schellenger's mother and friends, Krasner sought a third-degree murder charge against White — allowing for him to be released on bail for the duration of the trial and ensuring that the 21-year-old will not be sentenced to life without parole.
Bold reform — which includes violent crime — with this type of nuance is what will help us make gains in reversing mass incarceration.
Dr. John Pfaff, a professor of law at Fordham University, argues in his book Locked In that the popular perception that reforms to the prosecution of nonviolent drug offenses will reverse mass incarceration is not supported by data. Charging violent offenses is what drives mass incarceration, according to Pfaff. He writes: "Significant decarceration will require us to ask very tough questions about how to manage those convicted of violent crimes as well [as nonviolent]."
It is becoming clear that Krasner is not afraid of those exact questions. Unfortunately, that doesn't help the nearly 2,700 people from Philadelphia who are currently serving a life sentence — many of whom are black and sentenced while in their 20s.
But there is hope. State Sen. Sharif Street proposed a bill that will create a process in which lifers could be considered for parole after 15 years in prison. While that number can be debated, the idea is what matters — a sentence that carries no incentive for rehabilitation and reflection does not move us toward justice.
Critics point out that this approach to prosecution is unfair for the families and friends of victims who want justice for their loved ones. But the assumption that victim advocates are a monolith who always want the harshest possible punishment is wrong. In August, Mitzi Birli Foulke and Janice Airey testified before the commonwealth's Board of Pardons asking them to commute the sentence of Craig Datesman — the man who killed their brother three decades earlier. In an Inquirer op-ed, Birli Foulke wrote, "I now feel strongly that Craig has paid for his crime. He has served enough time and belongs with his family who has suffered while he has been incarcerated." Datesman's petition was denied and he is still incarcerated.
There are also those who raise concerns about the public safety implications of paroling people who were convicted of murder. But research suggests that the "criminal career" of most is short and that the vast majority of people "age out" of crime and violence. In fact, according to analysis conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the people convicted of the most violent crimes are the least likely to reoffend — only 1 percent of people convicted of murder who were released on parole were arrested for homicide.
We should invest resources in identifying and helping that high-risk 1 percent, not cage the full 100 for life.
If our approach to the prosecution of violent crime is purely punitive, then let's stop calling the departments that oversee prisons departments of "corrections." While an eye-for-an-eye approach is tempting, it is also vindictive. The goal of the state should not be to retaliate but to set a moral standard and rehabilitate. Philadelphia is heading in that direction.