Prosecutors on the Firing Line: Backlash Against ‘Progressives’ Grows

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Larry Krasner

Liberal support has helped to elect reform prosecutors like Philadelphia's newly elected DA Larry Krasner. Photo by Michael Thielen via Flickr

So-called “progressive” prosecutors around the country are coming under renewed attack from critics who say their policies are encouraging crime.

In Philadelphia, an unusually violent weekend in mid-June triggered another round of finger-pointing at District Attorney Larry Krasner, with assertions that his reform approach is giving violent criminals freer reign.

In Massachussetts, Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe lashed out against what he claimed was a new generation of “social justice” district attorneys, in an op ed in the Boston Globe that observers believed was directed at controversial Suffolk County DA  Rachael Rollins.

The criticism is the latest in a long-predicted “backlash” against the wave of reform-minded prosecutors who have taken office in the previous two years, in a burgeoning  movement to use the power of prosecutors for meaningful justice reform.

Philadelphia’s recent rash of shootings and homicides has triggered what some have called a “blame game” set off by local, state and federal officials against  the backdrop of a city rethinking how criminal defendants are charged, prosecuted and sentenced under Krasner, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

Violent crime is increasing slightly compared with last year, after it decreased five percent from 2017. Through Thursday, police had logged 154 killings in 2019, an eight percent jump from last year. Shootings climbed six percent, with 631 victims.

U.S. Attorney William McSwain blames Krasner for the uptick, citing policies such as requesting cash bail less often and seeking shorter prison sentences.  Police Commissioner Richard Ross questioned whether gun arrests are up because “some of these guys [carrying guns] think they’ve figured something out, relative to consequences or lack thereof.”

Neither McSwain nor Ross  offered data proving any specific policy responsible for the epidemic of shootings.

The Inquirer compared 310 gun cases resolved in late 2017 — before Krasner arrived— to 350 cases closed in late 2018. Krasner’s office secured a lower percentage of guilty verdicts and saw more cases tossed than the year before. The conviction decline from 61 percent in late 2017 to 50 percent a year later was due mostly to more cases withdrawn by prosecutors or dismissed by a judge.

In 2018, 29 percent of prosecutions did not proceed beyond a preliminary hearing, up from 18 percent a year earlier. Cases tossed often are doomed by problematic evidence, witnesses failing to appear, or a judge believing prosecutors failed to make a sufficient argument to proceed. Krasner spokesperson Jane Roh said, “Any statistical analysis that fails to carefully delineate these causes sheds more heat than light.”

Krasner has denied any blame for the gun violence.

The op ed published in the Boston Globe last weekend by Michael O’Keefe did not directly name Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins, but it left little doubt that it held the new policies introduced by her and other reform DAs responsible for new threats to public safety, WGBH reports.

In his op-ed, O’Keefe wrote that the “idea that we should exempt groups of people from having to obey the law is an insult to them and a destructive form of pandering, because it suggests that these people are lesser beings than those we expect to obey the law.”

O’Keefe also wrote: “It’s harder to blame, for example, the disintegration of the family, a lack of respect for discipline and education, and the glorification in some communities of a culture that celebrates disrespectful language and misogyny under the guise of art.”

Rollins was elected Suffolk County’s chief prosecutor seven months ago after presenting a vision that balanced crime control with reducing rates of incarceration, which disproportionately impact young men of color.

She developed a list of 15 low-levels crimes that the DA’s office would review on a case-by-case basis and would — generally — be reluctant to prosecute. The roster includes trespassing, shoplifting, larceny under $250, receiving stolen property, and drug possession with intent to distribute. Rollins said in a TV interview in January that her philosophy was that jail should be a last resort.

A furious Rollins criticized the Globe for publishing O’Keefe’s essay, noting that it had rejected other op eds  by community activists and judges decrying gun violence.

“I’m less disappointed with DA O’Keefe than I am with the Globe.” She said.

“Without citing a single statistic or piece of data, they allowed this op-ed to run when we’ve had community activists and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute writing about gun violence and the lack of funding — the Globe declined that op-ed,” Rollins said.

“We had Judge [Nancy] Gertner, who is a former federal judge, Harvard Law School professor. A professor at Northeastern, Daniel Medwed, they declined that op-ed.”

But these skirmishes may just be the beginning.

In San Francisco, outgoing District Attorney George Gascón is weighing a return home to Los Angeles, where he was a police officer in the 1990s, to challenge Jackie Lacey, Los Angeles’s incumbent top prosecutor.

Gascon is one of the nation’s leading progressive DAs, and Lacey is regarded as a “traditionalist” who has espoused a tough-on-crime approach. If the two square off, some observers say it could set the the stage for the nation’s most important district attorney’s race, reports the New York Times.

When it comes to criminal justice, the two cities could not be more different.

Los Angeles has the nation’s biggest jail system and sends people to state prison at almost four times the rate of San Francisco, even though violent crime has fallen in both cities.

George Gascón via twitter

There has not been a death penalty case in San Francisco in decades, while prosecutors in Los Angeles still seek new capital cases after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a moratorium on executions.

“This race is a huge opportunity,” Anne Irwin of Smart Justice California, an advocacy group, told The Times.

“Los Angeles has the biggest prosecutor’s office, and affects more lives, than any other prosecutor’s office in the country. Electing a reform-minded prosecutor there will change the criminal justice landscape nationally.”

Groups that have successfully supported reform-minded prosecutors pushing to end mass incarceration in places like Philadelphia, Chicago and Texas have focused on Los Angeles because of its size.

At the same time, politicians on the national level have begun to reverse the nation’s incarceration boom of the 1980s and 1990s. In Los Angeles County, Lacey has been racking up endorsements for her re-election campaign from the city and region’s political establishment, including eight congressional representatives, several state officials, four of the five members of the county board of supervisors, and Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Additional reading: How Larry Krasner is Remaking the Philly DA’s office

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