Philadelphia’s Top Prosecutor Pursues ‘Social,’ Not Actual, Justice

Larry Krasner said he wouldn’t prosecute certain offenses and the bad guys got the message.

By Jennifer Stefano  Ms Stefano is vice president and chief innovation officer at the Commonwealth Foundation
January 11, 2020

District Attorney Larry Krasner speaks to the media in Philadelphia, March 6, 2019.PHOTO: MATT ROURKE/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Michael White didn’t deny killing Sean Schellenger. He admitted to police and at his trial that he plunged a knife several times into Schellenger’s back during a July 2018 scuffle in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. Numerous witnesses and a cellphone video confirmed what happened. Yet in October 2019 a jury acquitted Mr. White, a 22-year-old college student, of voluntary manslaughter. Many, including the victim’s family, blame Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s soft-on-crime district attorney.

Mr. Krasner is one of a new crop of “progressive prosecutors” who have won election in liberal cities. They include San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin, who was raised by Weather Underground radicals Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn because his own parents were in prison for participating in the murder of police officers. Mr. Krasner was a virulent critic of law enforcement before running to become the city’s top prosecutor. During a 30-year career as a defense lawyer, Mr. Krasner gained notoriety for filing 75 lawsuits against Philadelphia police. In a 2017 campaign video he said “policing and prosecution are both systematically racist,” and he called poverty and crime consequences of “mass incarceration.”

Mr. Krasner’s candidacy was laughed off until George Soros dumped $1.7 million into the campaign. At his primary election night victory party, Mr. Krasner smiled while his supporters chanted, “No good cops in a racist system!” and “f— the FOP!” (the Fraternal Order of Police). He has refused to prosecute certain gun and drug crimes and ordered the 300 prosecutors in his office to seek lighter sentences. These moves have confirmed the suspicions of many Philadelphians that Mr. Krasner is more interested in coddling the city’s criminals than he is in providing justice to the victims of crimes.

Mr. Krasner’s office initially charged Mr. White with first-degree murder and denied his request for bail. But under pressure from leaders in Philadelphia’s African-American community, Mr. Krasner downgraded the charge to third-degree murder. (Mr. White is black; Schellenger was white.) Then, days before the trial, Mr. Krasner dropped the murder charge entirely.

Instead, Mr. White was charged with voluntary manslaughter, weapons possession, evidence tampering and obstruction of justice. After stabbing Schellenger, Mr. White fled the scene and hid the knife on the roof of a nearby apartment building.

When Mr. White was acquitted, his victim’s mother told a local radio program that she wanted to see Mr. Krasner in handcuffs. The prosecutor “really utilized the legal system to make sure [Mr. White] didn’t get the punishment that was intended,” Linda Schellenger said. Her son’s killer, she said, “was going to be convicted of third-degree murder, and [Mr. Krasner] knew that. That’s why he dropped the charge.”

Mr. Krasner considers himself a reformer, but social justice is no substitute for criminal justice. Violent crime in Philadelphia is on the rise. U.S. Attorney William McSwain has convincingly argued that Mr. Krasner has created a dangerous “culture of disrespect for law enforcement.” U.S. Attorney General William Barr has warned “there won’t be enough police officers to protect us” if “social justice” district attorneys like Messrs. Boudin and Krasner continue to promote lawlessness.

Philadelphia now ranks among the least safe big cities in the U.S., according to WalletHub. The city’s most dangerous neighborhoods are patrolled by a police department that feels under siege. Six Philadelphia cops were wounded during an eight-hour standoff in August when a suspect they were trying to serve with a warrant opened fire. The city’s criminal mayhem has become a statewide punch line.

There’s a better way to reform criminal justice. Start with first principles: public safety, due process and humane treatment of the incarcerated. These ideals are compatible.

One national program that shows promise is the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a public-private partnership between the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Pew Charitable Trusts to reduce crime, recidivism and spending in state corrections systems. These reforms are built on the premise that society is better off if people aren’t trapped in a cycle of crime, and that those who’ve paid their debts deserve a second chance.

At the state level, Pennsylvania recently enacted two reforms that improve the parole process for nonviolent offenses and reduce recidivism. State lawmakers are also considering a bill to make the probation system more efficient and effective, but Mr. Krasner dismisses this legislation as “harmful and unconstitutional.” Necessary reforms are coming in spite of Mr. Krasner, not because of him.

Radical prosecutors like Mr. Krasner make a mockery of justice. There’s nothing progressive about public servants who shirk their duties, and nothing just about allowing violent criminals to roam free.




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