During Tuesday’s lengthy City Council budget hearing, District Attorney Larry Krasner detailed his office’s struggles in retaining prosecutors and the “crushing” caseloads they face, and requested more than $600,000 in additional funding to stem the issue.
The money, Krasner said, would go toward hiring new staff, increasing prosecutors’ salaries so they don’t leave for higher-paying private opportunities, and attracting more experienced attorneys from across the country.
“We need help,” Krasner testified during the virtual hearing. “We need you to understand how vitally important it is that these attorneys are compensated.”
Krasner is seeking a comparatively modest increase in his office’s city funding. If Council provides the increase, the DA’s Office’s total funding would increase by less than 2% to $39.4 million. Krasner said his attorneys’ caseloads have grown by nearly 50% as the pandemic recedes and cases that were put on hold are now advancing in the courts.
And yet, Krasner’s office is charging fewer people with crimes than his predecessors. His office brought 23,000 cases last year, a 40% fall from the year before the start of his first term.
Krasner faced pointed questions from some on Council. Council President Darrell Clarke told Krasner that residents affected by crime “don’t want to hear” his “long” explanation of criminal-justice issues.
In testimony filed ahead of the hearing, Krasner said many prosecutors in the Major Trials Unit, which handles most felonies, are juggling as many 300 cases each. They spend most of their days in court, he said, and work late into the night and weekend, making it difficult to spend quality time on their cases.
He said the heavy workloads had deterred staff from carrying out his reform goals.
“Many came here wanting to prioritize rehabilitation and police accountability, but they often lack the time to seek rehabilitative resolutions or give a case the scrutiny it deserves,” Krasner wrote. “It is more difficult to distinguish low- from high-risk offenders when the prosecutor’s focus has to be on preparing for a list of cases the next day.”
The proposal seeks funding for seven new staff positions, including two ADAs to restart the Accelerated Misdemeanor Program, a diversion program for nonviolent offenders, and five positions “to invest in initiatives related to gun violence, organized retail theft, and quality-of-life crimes.”
In December, The Inquirer reported that more than 70 lawyers hired by Krasner had left, and described the office as somewhat chaotic, marked by the departures of nearly 200 other more veteran lawyers. Staffers described low morale and a decline in institutional knowledge, as more experienced prosecutors left.
Krasner has said other DA’s offices and law firms across the country are facing a similar problem of attrition, as staffers are being lured away by private firms that can offer three times a young prosecutors’ salary and provide the option to work from home.
Increasing his lawyers’ pay, he said, could help the office attract more experienced staffers, and potentially keep the current ones.
Krasner also pointed to the fact that young police officers are paid the same amount as young prosecutors, but the lawyers do not make overtime and often have more debt.
Increasing staff, he said, could also help relieve the case backlog in courts caused by the pandemic shutdown. There are 32,114 open cases in Philadelphia’s courts — about 11% more than before the pandemic — and 670 of those are homicides, he said.
“That is unheard of,” Krasner said.
That delay of cases involving serious crimes, like shootings, puts witnesses and victims — and the entire case itself — at risk, he said, and at a time when holding violent offenders accountable is critical, this cannot happen.
Krasner’s testimony followed a nearly four-hour budget hearing with the city’s top police officials, and the tone of questioning from Council toward Krasner was often considerably more pointed.
Councilmembers detailed the community’s frustration with not feeling safe in their homes, a feeling of a “revolving door” of repeat offenders, and a feeling that his office is not prosecuting lower-level quality-of-life crimes like illegal dumping and retail theft.
Krasner said his office does prosecute those crimes, but given the gun violence crisis, he said, police must focus their efforts on more serious issues. He also maintained that the city must invest in crime prevention, like public schools, and his office needs stronger police investigations and evidence so cases can be effectively tried.
Council President Clarke said that he understands Krasner’s reform approach but that residents wanted solutions now.
“They want to know, how can it be safe? How can you stop people from carjacking people? How can you stop gunshots in the middle of the night?” he said. “I’m not laying all that in your lap, but you are the chief law enforcement officer of the city of Philadelphia.
“I need to get a sense that you understand what these people out in these neighborhoods are talking about, the feeling of being safe.”