On September 13, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a resolution holding Philadelphia’s district attorney, high-profile reformer Larry Krasner, in “contempt of state” for refusing to comply with a subpoena to supply documents, issued by the recently-created Select Committee on Restoring Law and Order.
A lawyer for Krasner—who could theoretically face jail after the vote—called the move “undemocratic” because his client previously filed to a court to have the subpoena quashed.
That House Committee was created by House Resolution 216 earlier this year, and is led by Republicans as the “majority party” in the legislative body. But while some top state legislative Democrats, like House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton and state Representative Rick Krajewski, maligned the investigation, many other Democrats, including some in Philadelphia itself, supported it.
The framing has been highly politicized, particularly by rural Republicans who live in areas that virtually lack violent crime. For example, Rep. Torren Ecker (R-Adams/Cumberland), a member of the Committee, stated recently that there is a “rapid increase in crime in the state’s most populated city.” The underlying assumption of the Krasner probe is that crime has increased because of the folly of an elected “progressive” prosecutor (assuming a prosecutor can be progressive, a notion that has been vocally (and convincingly) contested).
Even the Democrats included have a pro-incarceration bent.
Other members of the five-member Committee include Reps. John Lawrence (R-Chester), who serves as chair; Amen Brown (D-Philadelphia); Danilo Burgos (D-Philadelphia); and Wendi Thomas (R-Bucks).
Even the Democrats included have a pro-incarceration bent. Brown, a young Philly representative, was in 2021 denounced for what reform advocates called a “terrifyingly awful” mandatory minimums bill, mirroring the hyper-carceral policy agenda of Pennsylvania’s rural Republicans. Just like Carlos Vega, the conservative Democrat whom DA Krasner trounced to win reelection in 2021, Brown says we need to go back to maximally harsh punishment to deal with rising gun violence. That is apparently not how most of the city feels, despite a small and vocal portion of city crime victims forming an anti-Krasner contingent.
Burgos, meanwhile, has supported some important reforms, albeit usually on less contentious issues than some that Krasner has addressed, such as the resentencing of kids formerly sentenced to natural life in prison for murder. These include decriminalizing cannabis and permitting undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses.
However, Burgos’ district also includes Kensington, where a vocal cohort of residents has long been furious about open-air drug sales and drug use-related waste, a natural outcome of not adequately funding existing harm reduction services.
“Hopefully we will make recommendations that are beneficial for all and not just for talking points and political issues,” Burgos said. “It’s obviously being pushed forward by the GOP, but I hope that what happens is really what they said, to find solutions to issues of crime across the state, not just Philadelphia.”
It is noteworthy that Krasner is already more transparent than virtually all DAs in the country.
It is not publicly known what exactly the subpoenas to Krasner said, though an announcement from Rep. Ecker suggests an intention to investigate “every aspect of law enforcement in Philadelphia, including prosecution, sentencing, the rights of crime victims and the city’s use of funding intended for law enforcement.”
District attorneys, who operate with very little oversight, are notorious for a lack of transparency. Beyond some outspoken exceptions who grab headlines, most don’t announce detailed prosecutions policies. But it is noteworthy that Krasner—some of whose policies, like not seeking the death penalty and not prosecuting people for possessing buprenorphine, are highly visible—is already more transparent than virtually all DAs in the country. Some DAs collect data on prosecutorial decisions across cases, but almost none make that information broadly available online. Krasner does. And even when DAs do collect, organize, and maintain data, “systematic approaches for tracking compliance with office policies guiding decisions or for tracking emerging trends within the data are uncommon,” as the Urban Institute found after a broad survey of prosecutors’ offices in 2018.
The heavily politicized probe into Krasner reflects a growing opposition movement to reform prosecutors. Chesa Boudin, the progressive former San Francisco DA, was recalled, then replaced by ardent drug warrior Brooke Jenkins. In Baltimore, reformer Marilyn Mosby lost her seat to regressive prosecutor Ivan Bates who promised to undo her declination policy for many types of drug cases. And in Boston, interim DA Kevin Hayden recently defeated progressive challenger Ricardo Arroyo, who wanted to bring back the declination policies of former DA Rachel Rollins.
For his part on the committee matter, Krasner insists that the subpoena was not even legally binding. As a campaign spokesperson said, “the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has said that when a party receives a subpoena that it believes is improper—as we do—you should seek review in court,” which Krasner apparently did.
While Krasner could technically face imprisonment after the House vote, sanctions are ultimately up to the discretion of the legislature. “That is not the direction we’re going to take,” Brown said.
“Change ain’t easy,” Krasner tweeted, “But it’s worth it.”
Krasner’s unlikely incarceration, even short-term, would certainly shine a national light on the issues at stake. It would also likely spell an undemocratic reversal of Krasner’s election and reelection, with the appointment of a more carceral replacement. (Under Krasner, Philadelphia’s jail population hit its lowest level since 1985).
That is because It would mean a predominantly Republican branch of government turning over the leadership of the DA’s office to whoever a panel of Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judges thinks is best. Many judges on Philadelphia’s trial court bench ascended from the DA’s office during the draconian era of DA Lynne Abraham, nicknamed the “Queen of Death” because of her obsession with capital punishment. Many of them have resisted Krasner’s desire to use prosecutorial discretion in a more even-handed way. While Court of Common Pleas judges can be either elected or appointed to a first term, they thereafter only face retention elections every 10 years, which has led to little sustained interest from voters.
Photograph of Krasner in 2019 by Philadelphia City Council via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0