Editorial: The empire strikes back — against progressive prosecutors
Larry Krasner was first elected Philadelphia district attorney in 2017. Voters of Philadelphia County, which has the same boundaries as the city, expressed unmistakable confidence in their D.A. last year when they reelected the Democrat and self-described progressive prosecutor by a wide margin.
Despite that — in fact, perhaps because of it — Republican members of the Pennsylvania Legislature on Wednesday filed articles of impeachment against him following a report that criticizes his prosecutorial policies but fails to identify any impeachable offense.
This egregious misuse of oversight power is all the more shocking because Pennsylvania lawmakers never bothered to impeach prosecutors who had been accused of actual (and serious) misconduct, including Krasner’s predecessor, R. Seth Williams, who was indicted on 23 corruption counts while in office and ultimately sentenced to five years for bribery. Or Somerset County D.A. Jeffrey Thomas, who was suspended by the state Supreme Court and is awaiting trial on rape charges.
Earlier this year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, suspended twice-elected reformist State Atty. Andrew Warren, whose jurisdiction includes Tampa, for supposed “incompetence” and “neglect of duty” because he pledged not to prosecute alleged violators of Florida’s 15-week abortion ban or possible legislation criminalizing gender-affirming care. Warren is suing to get his job back and to protect voters’ power to choose their own officials.
California and indeed the entire nation would benefit if the Senate confirms President Biden’s nomination of prosecutor Rachael Rollins as U.S. attorney in Massachusetts over partisan GOP opposition.
Both moves to flout the will of voters are examples of blowback from entrenched political players against a wave of reform D.A.s, many of whom were first elected in 2016, on the same day as Donald Trump.
These progressive prosecutors — also sometimes called 21st century prosecutors — aren’t always on the same policy page but generally agree that governmental resources should be devoted to prosecuting the most dangerous crimes, and that people suspected of committing nonviolent offenses should be diverted from the criminal justice system to drug treatment, mental health care or other programs as circumstances warrant. Many oppose money bail but may support pretrial incarceration for defendants who pose the most risk. Many have signed on to these and other elements in a set of “21 principles for 21st century prosecutors,” developed by a coalition of leading justice reform organizations and individuals.
“I am hopeful that at some point this movement leads to a much less punitive, much more rehabilitative system, one premised much more on prevention rather than punishment,” Krasner said in an interview included in the just released “Change From Within: Reimagining the 21st Century Prosecutor.” The book features profiles and statements by 13 reform D.A.s and is written by former Assistant U.S. Atty. Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a support organization for new-style D.A.s.
The approach pursued by Krasner, Warren and many others is in marked contrast to the class of so-called tough-on-crime district attorneys who were first elected in the 1990s on the promise of seeking the longest possible sentences regardless of the level of offense.
As political observers consider the wave of Democratic victories across the country Tuesday and what it might mean for President Trump, it’s important not to overlook Philadelphia — where voters elected as their top prosecutor a criminal defense lawyer who campaigned on ending cash bail, the death penalty, civil asset forfeiture and the war on drugs.
Voters in jurisdictions across the nation have elected reform D.A.s because they have come to recognize fundamental flaws in the old style of prosecution. They want district attorneys who take responsibility for the justice system to make it work more efficiently and equitably.
They are, of course, entitled to change their minds, although when they do it’s often in reaction to a spate of politically motivated falsehoods attempting to tie their policies to the increases in crime that have plagued the nation since pandemic lockdowns were lifted in mid-2020.
In California, for example, San Francisco D.A. Chesa Boudin was recalled earlier this year, San Joaquin County D.A. Tori Verber Salazar was defeated for reelection in June, and a recall signature drive against Los Angeles County D.A. George Gascon fell just short of qualifying for the ballot in August.
Attempts to connect sensible prosecutorial policies to crime increases are ridiculous. Suffolk County, Mass., which includes Boston, is one of the few places in which murders declined last year, when prosecutions were overseen by reform D.A. Rachael Rollins. (She has since been appointed U.S. attorney for Massachusetts.) A major independent study on crime in Suffolk County found that diverting lower-level offenses from the criminal justice system reduces future involvement in crime, making residents safer.
Recall elections and other ballot defeats, even if based on misinformation, at least leave voters in control. The particularly chilling aspect of the actions against Krasner and Warren is that they strip voters of their power to set criminal justice agendas for their communities — the very purpose of having elected prosecutors. If the Pennsylvania Legislature and the Florida governor are successful in their moves to disenfranchise Philadelphia and Tampa voters, look for more of the same in liberal urban areas surrounded by more regressive interests in other parts of their states.
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