Mounting Violence Casts Doubt Over the Project of Progressive "Reform" Prosecutors
As a spate of progressive district attorneys takes office throughout the country, violent recidivism has some Philadelphians second-guessing their reformist district attorney.
Editor’s note from Glenn Greenwald:
In recent years, activists seeking to end the scourge of mass incarceration have set their sights on backing progressive prosecutors for district attorneys’ offices. With promises to end the cash bail system, avoid harsh punishments for minor drug offenders, and confront racial inequities in the justice system, a coterie of sympathetic prosecutors has succeeded in local elections throughout the country. One of the prototypes for these newly elected D.A.s is Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, who faces re-election this Tuesday.
Riding off a swell of indignation surrounding police brutality that arose last summer, like-minded progressive D.A.s now find themselves in charge in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Orlando, and Austin, among other major cities. Progressive media outlets have cheered this development with little dissent.
Elected in 2017, Krasner won office on a promise to dismantle a racist and oppressive system of mass incarceration. His national importance to this movement is reflected by the endorsement issued last week by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). But as Krasner seeks re-election, many have come to believe that the benefits of his criminal justice "reform” approach are becoming outweighed by its mounting costs — costs Philadelphians have come to know all too well. In particular, many are arguing that this criminal justice philosophy — not just in Philadelphia but in cities across the U.S. where it has prevailed — is going too far in the other direction of excessive leniency toward violent and dangerous criminals, resulting in a spate of horrific violence aimed largely at poor, working-class and minority residents (a recall campaign has now been mounted against San Francisco's progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin based on similar concerns).
As someone who has supported and still does support criminal justice reform as a way of alleviating the brutal injustices of mass incarceration — particularly the imprisonment of non-violent offenders and the excesses of the Drug War (one of the main topics of a 2011 book I wrote, With Liberty and Justice for Some) — I thought it would be journalistically beneficial to air the criticisms and costs of this "reform” approach from a journalist, Ralph Cipriano, who lives in Philadelphia and has reported on violent crime. As is true of all “Outside Voices” contributions, our publishing this article does not signify my agreement with all or even any of what it says: only my assessment that it is an important piece of journalism that will enable readers to form their own views in a more informed and less propagandized manner:
By Ralph Cipriano
When he took office in January 2018, Larry Krasner, Philadelphia's new reform district attorney certainly was an anomaly.
The career criminal defense lawyer best known for suing the Philadelphia police department 75 times had never even prosecuted a traffic stop before. But as the new D.A., Krasner immediately set out to keep his campaign promises. He pledged never to invoke the death penalty, and he decriminalized offenses such as possession of marijuana, prostitution, and retail theft under $500. He had his Conviction Integrity Unit get to work on reexamining old cases to see if any inmates still in prison had been wrongly convicted. And he had the same unit launch investigations into police officers accused of misconduct.
As a result, Krasner was lionized in the progressive media. “A profound reimagining of the D.A. role,” Ben Austen wrote glowingly about Krasner in 2018 in The New York Times Magazine. A “transformational leader,” proclaimed BLM activist Shaun King in The Intercept in 2018.
Krasner, who declined to be interviewed, is now a national symbol of reform who counts among his supporters billionaire George Soros, pop star John Legend, and NFL safety Malcolm Jenkins. To further burnish his image, Krasner stars in a current eight-part PBS documentary “Philly D.A.” He’s also the author of a new book, For The People; A Story of Justice And Power.
But when Philadelphia voters go the polls on Tuesday, they’ll have to decide whether Krasner’s radical experiment, which has been emulated around the country in cities such as Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco and Los Angeles, is worth the rapidly escalating number of dead bodies for which Krasner’s policies are being blamed. Another issue that may linger after the Philadelphia election is whether the “reform” movement that Krasner embodies is itself in need of reform.
As D.A., Krasner favored low bail or no bail, as well as minimal prison sentences below state guidelines. He uniformly applied these policies across the board to all crimes and to all accused criminals.
The good news is that low-level nonviolent offenders were treated more sanely, and nobody’s getting busted anymore for possession of marijuana. The bad news is that Krasner’s progressive policies have been responsible for routinely letting armed and dangerous criminals out of jail who’ve gone on to commit more crimes.
As one veteran criminal defense lawyer who defends many drug dealers told me, since Krasner became D.A., “All my clients are out on the street. And they’re all armed.”
Turf battles over drugs in Philadelphia are largely responsible for creating the biggest issue in Tuesday’s Democratic primary that may ultimately cost Krasner his job -- a surging murder rate.
It’s a problem across the nation that prosecutors, especially Krasner’s progressive brethren, have been clueless about when it comes to stopping the bloodshed.
When Krasner was elected in 2017, Philadelphia had 315 murders. Last year, the city had 499 murders, the highest total in 30 years, a 58% increase over Krasner’s first three years in office.
Over the first 133 days of 2021, the murder count as of May 13th was already at 191, a 39% increase over last year. At this rate, the city will set an all-time record of more than 693 murders.
Many people across the nation, including Krasner, have blamed COVID-19 for the upsurge in gun violence. Cops on the ground in Philadelphia confirm that during the pandemic, the illegal drug business has thrived, and that every time the government issues a new wave of stimulus checks, there's an uptick in sales of heroin, cocaine and other drugs.
Here are a few prominent examples of criminals that Kasner’s office has loosed on the populace:
Last June, Krasner’s D.A.’s office agreed to let Tarray Herring out of jail for free, for fear that he would catch COVID behind bars. Herring, a registered sex offender with more than a dozen arrests, was arrested again in February after cops found him driving around town in a U-Haul truck with a headless torso in back. Herring confessed that he used an electric saw and a hacksaw to dismember the body of Peter Gerold, a 70-year-old licensed masseuse. Next, Herring deep-fried the body parts, and disposed of them in various dumpsters. He’s been charged with murder and abuse of a corpse.
Last December, two separate bail hearings were held for Josephus Davis, a two-time convicted robber arrested two more times for an alleged carjacking as well as an aggravated assault allegedly committed while still in prison. At the hearings, the bail in Davis’ two new cases was reduced from a combined $300,000 down to $32,000, meaning that Davis’ relatives only had to put up a 10% deposit, or $3,200, to spring him. Just two weeks later, Davis attempted to rob and then shot to death Milan Loncar, 25, a recent Temple University graduate out walking his dog.
In January of 2018, Hassan Elliott pleaded guilty in a negotiated plea to carrying firearms without a license, but walked out of court a free man based on time previously served. While on probation, Elliott was charged three times for probation violations, but three times the D.A.’s office allowed Elliott to stay out of jail. A year later, in January 2019, Elliott was arrested again on a drug charge, but the D.A.’s office withdrew the charge. On March 13, 2020, Elliott shot to death Sgt. James O’Connor, 46, who showed up with a SWAT team to serve an arrest warrant on Elliott for another murder he was accused of. At a press conference where the feds announced they were taking over prosecution of the case, then U.S. Attorney William McSwain stated that Krasner’s “pro-violent defendant policies” were “every bit as responsible” for the murder of Sgt. O’Connor as Hassan Elliott.
In addition to the surging murder rate, Krasner has been heavily criticized for his lax prosecution of gun crimes. A “revolving door” is how Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw has characterized Krasner’s handling of gun arrests.
Cops have gone on social media to protest having to repeatedly arrest the same offenders such as Vernon Harris, a 19-year-old drug dealer arrested three times in 14 months for illegally possessing firearms. But thanks to low or no bail, Harris was right back on the street again.
Krasner’s prosecutors, mainly rookies straight out of law school, or recruits from the ranks of former public defenders, have been less effective in court than their predecessors.
As of March 31st, out of 497 gun crime cases that went to court this year, 350 of those cases, or 70%, were either dismissed, withdrawn or tried to a verdict of not guilty. And of the gun cases that went to court, only 11, or 2.2%, resulted in a guilty verdict.
While arrests for gun crimes by the cops have nearly tripled since Krasner took office, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, the conviction rate for gun crimes has fallen from 63% to 49%.
When you let armed and dangerous drug dealers out of jail, cops and prosecutors will tell you, shootings lead to retaliatory shootings. Sadly, many innocent children have been caught in the crossfire.
Last year 23 children and teenagers in Philadelphia were shot to death, and 174 more were victims of non-fatal shootings. The victims included 7-year-old Zamar Jones, who on Aug. 1, 2020, was sitting on his front porch playing with his toy race car, when he was fatally shot in the head by Michael Banks.
Police said that Banks was involved in a shoot-out over drugs when one of his stray bullets struck and killed the 7-year-old. At another press conference, U.S. Attorney McSwain said that Banks should have been in jail, but the year before, the D.A.’s office let Banks out on a lenient plea bargain by reducing a felony gun charge to a misdemeanor.
So far this year, 55 more children have been shot. And this brings us to the main problem with reform prosecutors like Krasner who come to power in big cities with already existing gun violence problems. The reform policies of Krasner and his ilk act as an accelerant on a forest fire.
As he wages his crusade against mass incarceration, Krasner hasn’t discerned the difference between non-violent offenders and armed and dangerous criminals. Under the progressive policies of the D.A. that drug dealers refer to as “Uncle Larry,” every criminal gets a break.
While Krasner is overly sympathetic to criminals, the flip side to his reforms has been an institutional blindness toward victims. As George Parry, a former state and federal prosecutor, told me, "Larry has no time for victims. They get in the way of his social justice narrative. They're a speed bump on the way to social utopia."
Parry’s sentiments were echoed within the D.A.’s office.
Kathleen Hess, a former victims' advocate in the D.A.'s office for the families of murder victims, tweeted that when it came to prison sentences and plea bargains, "victims were not feeling heard and they were not involved in the process involving the murder of their loved ones."
Hess said she loved her job but resigned in 2018 because "I could not fathom how he [Krasner] treated victims of crime."
"Larry Krasner doesn't care about victims, he sees them as an obstacle to his agenda," agreed Amanda Bee, an award-winning victim/witness coordinator in the homicide unit of the D.A.'s office who lost her job in 2019 and was never told why.
"I don't believe that criminal justice reform and victims rights are mutually exclusive missions," she said.
Krasner’s pro-criminal and anti-victim biases were most graphically on display during the most notorious murder case of his reign, the 2018 murder of Sean Schellenger. The 37-year-old real estate developer was stabbed to death near Rittenhouse Square, one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
Police arrested Michael White, a 20-year-old Uber Eats driver who, in a crime recorded on a cell phone video, plunged a black, foot-long serrated knife with a seven-inch blade into the back of the unarmed Schellenger. The victim bled out in minutes while White fled on foot.
In the weeks prior to trial, Linda Schellenger, the victim’s mother, called Krasner’s office for five straight days, seeking a meeting with Krasner, but he never called her back.
On the first day of jury selection, however, Krasner’s staff hastily arranged a phone call between Krasner and the victim’s mother so the D.A. could tell the mother he was dropping a third-degree murder charge against White.
When the victim’s mother protested that Krasner should let the jury decide whether White committed murder or not, “He literally yelled at me on the phone,” Linda Schellenger said. And then he admonished her for “questioning his authority and his intellect.”
But Krasner had plenty of time and sympathy for the accused killer. Before the case went to trial, Krasner huddled behind closed doors with White and his legal defense team for more than three hours. During the meeting, Krasner collaborated with White and his lawyers to help him beat the rap. A jury subsequently found White not guilty of voluntary manslaughter.
The D.A.’s office under Krasner has been particularly insensitive to victims rights in cases of domestic abuse that typically involve women and children.
For example, in 2018, Michael Brennan, a convicted robber, allegedly punched his girlfriend, Breonna Register, in the face five times. Then, wielding a metal chain, cops said, he proceeded to terrorize Register and her two six-year twin boys, who were hiding in Register’s car, by smashing the car’s mirrors before a panicked Register drove off.
But when the domestic abuse case went to the D.A.’s office for prosecution, the D.A. dropped all five charges against Brennan. It’s hard to square what happened next with the stated goals of progressives who want to reform the criminal justice system so it will be more fair. Two months later, Brennan brutally beat one of his girlfriend’s twin boys, Travon Register, to death.
The medical examiner testified that the six-year-old boy who stood 3-foot-7 and weighed 40 pounds suffered from “multiple blunt injuries” more typical of an auto accident. Those injuries included hemorrhages on both sides of the boy’s brain, eight broken ribs and a fractured sternum, more than 50 cuts and bruises, and a lacerated liver, spleen and kidney.
Then there was the case of Tyreek Lemon, who admitted he smothered his 2 1/2 month old son, Orion, to death when the infant wouldn’t stop crying. The D.A.’s office under Krasner gave the confessed baby killer a generous plea bargain that included house arrest. While Lemon was looking at 20 to 40 years in jail, under the D.A.’s plea bargain, he received a prison sentence of just 3 ½ to 7 years.
In the days before Tuesday’s election, the gun violence in Philadelphia has continued unabated. On Mother’s Day weekend, there were 25 shootings, including seven murders. For Ed Rendell, former Philadelphia D.A. and mayor, and Pennsylvania governor, it was the “final straw.”
Krasner “is not a bad man,” Rendell said at a May 11th press conference. But, Rendell said, as D.A., Krasner has “clearly demonstrated that he simply doesn’t understand or won’t recognize that the first and most important part of a D.A.’s job is to protect people in this city from violent, brutal crime.”
About the city’s soaring violent crime rate, Rendell said, “You must as a city do something about it. If you don’t act, it will destroy the city.”
And that’s why, Rendell announced, he would be endorsing Carlos Vega for D.A., a career homicide prosecutor originally hired by Rendell who’s running against Krasner in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
But as the dead bodies continue to pile up in Philadelphia, unlike Rendell, the progressive media keeps giving Krasner a pass. A total of ten stories in The Intercept and scores of stories in The Philadelphia Inquirer read like press releases from the D.A.’s office.
Most progressive news outlets, local and national, continue to treat Krasner as the white knight, allowing him to pass the buck, as he accepts no responsibility for the city’s out-of-control murder rate.
The murder rate has, ironically, targeted the very same minorities that Krasner set out to emancipate from mass incarceration. Of the 499 murder victims who were killed last year, 87% were black and at least 10% more were Latino. It’s the ugly truth lurking beneath Philadelphia’s criminal justice revolution -- people of color are paying the price for Krasner’s reforms.
And what about those reforms? Since he’s been in office, Krasner has indicted 51 cops on felony charges, but his prosecutors are so inept they only managed to convict three cops, of misdemeanors. Meanwhile, Krasner has freed 20 inmates that he says were wrongly convicted. But are those reforms worth the price of a soaring murder rate?
In The Atlantic this month, Krasner blamed Philadelphia’s record murder rate on the Covid pandemic and the ensuing shutdowns.
“It was the elimination of the basic fabric of our society that has been protective of young people and older-juveniles – exactly the groups that are shooting each other,” Krasner told Russell Berman.
“He may be right about the causes,” Berman wrote. “After all, gun violence has soared across the country, in places that have traditional tough-on-crime prosecutors as well as those with progressive district attorneys.”
The Atlantic may have bought that argument. But when Krasner tried to peddle it to a bunch of Democratic ward leaders all too familiar with the local body count, they declined to endorse Krasner for reelection, instead opting for an open primary.
Democratic party chairman Bob Brady told the Inquirer that “quite a few people” had problems with Krasner’s explanation for a spike in homicides and gun crimes.
“The ward leaders did go after him on the gun issue and safety in the streets,” Brady said. “He kept blaming different people and the pandemic. They didn’t buy it.”
Ralph Cipriano is a veteran muckraking reporter who has exposed corruption in police departments, local governments, Ivy League Football and the Catholic Church. He’s a former staff writer for Albany Times Union, Los Angeles Times, and Philadelphia Inquirer who now works as an author, freelance journalist, and blogger at bigtrial.net.