What DA Krasner’s Likely Impeachment Tells Us About Reform Opponents

    Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is probably getting impeached. At a time when US Senate candidates like Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and incumbents like Ron Johnson in Wisconsin are banking on fear of rising crime in blue cities, “common sense” thinking has Krasner’s head on the chopping block.

    Of course, Krasner, who has used prosecutorial discretion to decrease drug prosecutions and stop using the death penalty, is not the or likely even a reason violent crime is up in Philadelphia. Violent crime patterns are complex and unpredictable, influenced by many variables. But nuance and truth make bad politics.

    Republicans in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives filed articles of impeachment against the DA on October 26. Despite having Rep. Martina White, who represents a sliver of Philadelphia, as a figurehead, they made a decision about constituencies that few of them represent. With Republicans holding a 111-92 advantage in the Pennsylvania House, it is almost certain that the simple majority required will support the move.

    So unless progressive litigation organizations can cook up some clever legal argument to block the process, DA Krasner will probably be found “guilty” of “misconduct” in office, due to no crime or legal ethics issue, but simply changes in office policy. Krasner set policy through office memoranda that his assistant prosecutors feel obliged to follow.

    The text of the impeachment resolution shows the thinking of those behind this, and what justice reform advocates more broadly are facing.

    The two-thirds vote threshold required in the state Senate would then be hit if every Republican, the single independent, and five Democrats agreed. Finding five conservative Democrats who hate or fear Krasner, a target of non-progressives ever since he took office in 2018, would not be hard to do.

    A guilty adjudication from the state senate could mean removal.

    But the actual text of the impeachment resolution deserves close attention. It shows the thinking of those behind this, and what justice reform advocates more broadly are facing.

    First, there’s the desire to gut prosecutorial discretion.

    While Rep. Martina White’s name is the one that appears on the resolution, many top Republicans in the House have been pushing for it. Despite the PA GOP’s more public focus on rising violent crime rates under Krasner, the resolution focuses on quite moderate and practical reforms of his, such as limiting counterintuitively long probation terms and often not charging lowest-priority “crimes” like marijuana possession.

    The resolution later recalls a prior resolution regarding the House Select Committee to Restore Law and Order, which stated that the committee should recommend “legislative action as the select committee finds necessary to ensure appropriate enforcement of law and order in the City of Philadelphia.”

    What is law and order, then, according to the current resolution? We already know—it is the restoration of zero-tolerance policing and the maximization of prosecution of the lowest-level “crimes.”

    This would require new laws that crush prosecutorial discretion, leaving DAs as nothing more than cogs under the legislature’s control. Such laws would contradict the US Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine. What’s more—in a city where marijuana use, say, unlike violence, does not bother the vast majority of residents, as their election of Krasner demonstrates—they would be a disrespectful and tone-deaf overstep.

    Second, there’s the refusal to believe in expertise.

    The resolution largely relies on analysis by the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center of the impacts of Krasner’s policies. DVIC is the “intelligence” bureau of the Philadelphia Police Department. It’s led by PPD Chief Inspector DeShawn Beaufort.

    Like most cops, Beaufort does not have academic expertise in criminology. Instead, according to LinkedIn, he has a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership and a master’s in business administration.

    Despite their job of arresting people for crimes, cops are not experts on the factors behind crime and the impacts of policies—just as a plumber who works with pipes every day cannot design quality pipes from scratch, which requires a degree in mechanical engineering.

    Conservatives like to trash college, but sometimes academic training is needed to address complex problems. Conservatives who do not want to hear it from me can take it from The Death of Expertise (2017) authored by Tom Nichols, a retired US Naval War College professor who once doubled as a legislative aide to former Senator Tom Heinz (R-PA).

    Third, there’s the desire to bring back the death penalty.

    The current resolution, nominally authored by Rep. White, makes a lot of the opinion of Judge Mitchell Goldberg, a Republican appointee and former Philadelphia assistant prosecutor, who excoriated Krasner for trying to do what other Republicans do: renegotiate a sentence on a case. The only difference was that Krasner was trying to get a death sentence revoked. It was in the case of Robert Wharton, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1985.

    Under the current legal system, prosecutors have every right to decide whether or not to use the death penalty in an individual case. This is something that even lawyers sometimes do not understand.

    Scapegoating him over the heads of the local majority who elected him is a symptom of Republicans’ wider ideological and anti-democratic goals.

    Procedurally, this just looked a bit different than usual. Wharton sought federal court review of his death sentence and Krasner sought to overturn it—on the basis of responding to voter preference. Judge Goldberg noted that the DA’s office had “zealously defended Wharton’s death sentence for decades,” but that was under former administrations.

    And those administrations were largely mired in misconduct and corruption, something that was especially true for the nearly 20 years DA Lynne Abraham was in office. Scores of innocent people were convicted of murder and sent to death row under her administration. While the DA at the time of Wharton’s conviction was Ed Rendell, a former governor and Democratic Party power player, even Rendell’s office was not beyond egregious mistakes. Naturally, Judge Goldberg omitted this context.

    Infuriated by Krasner, Judge Goldberg got Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a conservative Democrat who’s expected to win the state’s current gubernatorial race, to investigate the case. Shapiro’s office came back with a report that said Wharton should be executed for bad behavior in prison.

    Finally, there’s the simple love of power.

    Ultimately, this whole thing is about power: the power to force one branch of government to succumb to another. With his brazenness and penchant for offensive commentary, Krasner is far from the most sympathetic politician in many eyes. He has also achieved some things that many people find positive. Scapegoating him over the heads of the local majority who elected him is a symptom of Republicans’ wider ideological and anti-democratic goals.

     


     

    Photograph of the chamber of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives by Concord via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0

    • Rory is a writer and licensed attorney. Previously, he ran Foglight Strategies, a campaign research services firm for forward-thinking prosecutors, and worked for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Harvard Law School Fair Punishment Project and the National Network for Safe Communications at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He lives in Philadelphia.

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