Philadelphia’s Krasner Plans to Divert Drug Possession Cases to Treatment

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Larry Krasner

Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, who faces a primary runoff Tuesday, is among progressive prosecutors threatened by state legislative measures. Photo by Michael Thielen via Flickr

Philadelphia is “on the cusp of sending every single case involving mere possession of drugs to diversion,” says the city’s District Attorney Larry Krasner.

In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, the controversial ex-public defender is making what may be his boldest move yet to change the culture of the prosecutor’s office.

Krasner, who has long argued that people should not be incarcerated for drug addiction, has directed his office to launch an interim version of an unprecedented “diversion” program, in which prosecutors simply withdraw charges for those who show proof they’re in drug treatment.

“We want to get people into treatment to get at underlying problems to stop criminal behavior,” Krasner said in the interview. “This is what all experts are telling us is the better way to go about this … under a public-health analysis and, frankly, a public-safety analysis.”

The move to begin diverting almost all drug-possession cases from the criminal justice system received a jump-start from a surprising source: the Philadelphia Police Department, whose forensics lab was overwhelmed by a backlog of 37,000 unfulfilled orders for analysis of seized drugs.

That presented a big obstacle to the prosecution of major drug crimes, let alone possession cases.

The district attorney’s effort is a low-tech but radical shift from previous approaches in Philadelphia. Diversion programs have been selective, and limited to those with few or no previous convictions, have exposed defendants who fail treatment to consequences including criminal convictions and jail or prison time, and have often required the payment of hundreds of dollars in court costs.

Since Krasner took office, drug-possession convictions excluding diversion programs are down 45 percent, about a thousand cases a year. The broader diversion effort could involve 230 people each month who are arrested for drug possession.

Krasner’s diversion plan is likely to draw criticism from both those who believe the justice system must hold people accountable and those who argue that further criminalizing addicted people does vast harm and little good.

Philly’s DA is one of the acknowledged leaders of the cohort of “progressive” prosecutors who are winning elections in cities across the U.S.

Similar victories in Houston, Chicago, Tampa, Boston and Durham, N.C., have drawn concern from law-and-order advocates who contend the policies of the new group represent threats to public safety.

The criticism has received added weight from Attorney General William Barr, who charged recently that efforts to divert defendants from prison, or reduce punishments, will encourage more criminal behavior and were “demoralizing” and dangerous.

Recently, progressives took down incumbents in several counties in Washington, D.C.’s northern Virginia suburbs. Los Angeles County voters will weigh in next year as the progressive former San Francisco district attorney of San Francisco, George Gascon, challenges incumbent Jackie Lacey.

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