Re-think Sentencing for Violent Offenders: Philly DA Larry Krasner

Six months after taking office, Philadelphia’s controversial DA says incarceration levels have dropped as a result of his reforms, with no increase in most categories of violent crime. But he argues that further reductions require changes in the way the justice system deals with individuals convicted of violent offenses.

The nation cannot effectively reduce prison populations unless the justice system changes the way it handles violent offenders and sex criminals, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said Tuesday.

“This is the topic that the left and the press never want to talk about, because this is the tough one,” he told journalists at a John Jay College conference.

“Young people are all in favor of legalizing weed, but as soon as you say violent, there’s a certain visceral response,” said Krasner, who delivered the keynote luncheon address at the conference on “Rural (In)Justice: America’s Hidden Jail Crisis.”

“And yet the reality is, if you’re going to take a serious shot at reducing levels of incarceration, you do have to address this issue.”

While he acknowledged that the gravest offenses necessitate long sentences—“none of us are going to tolerate stranger rape, none of us are going to tolerate serial murder, none of us want Charles Manson walking around”—Krasner stressed the exorbitant cost of incarceration, and the potential good those funds could do in other areas.

He estimated that a five-year sentence in Philadelphia cost $210,000–roughly the same price tag as five public school teachers’ annual salaries.

“We disconnected all of this from the discussion of where the assets might otherwise have gone,” he said.

“Somehow we got to the point where one year just felt like five years, because we’re not talking about $210,000, or $420,000, and what that could have meant in terms of prevention in the long term.”

Krasner acknowledged that perpetrators should pay a price for crime, but “the price doesn’t have to be much higher than in every other country, and so debilitating that we bankrupt the public schools in Philly.”

The DA, who was elected last November after a long career as an outspoken public defender in America’s sixth-largest city, entered office with a sweeping plan to transform Philadelphia’s prosecutorial practices.

Less than three months after taking office in January, he issued a memo instructing assistant district attorneys to cease charging certain offenses entirely, and to charge lower gradations for others.

In addition to declining and lowering charges, Krasner recommended that district attorneys utilize diversion more frequently, implement bail reform, and opt for lower sentences when they do seek convictions.

“Don’t come up with artificial obstacles” to decarceration, he said, citing the example of a statute that prevented undocumented immigrants from being sent to diversion when charged with driving under the influence because they were prohibited from owning a driver’s license.

“What’s the big deal? So you expand it,” he said. “You expand the provisions that allow people to get in, and maybe you require more of those people so that there’s a level playing field. But you expand it.”

Currently, one of Philadelphia’s four jails stands empty, the result of efforts that Krasner conceded began before he was elected but accelerated since he took office. He said he expected the jail population to continue declining, a boon to taxpayers that, he pointed out, has done no discernable harm to public safety.

“The result of all these people getting out of jail is a reduction in homicides, a reduction in rapes, a reduction in armed robbery,” he said. “Shootings are up four percent, everything else in the violent category is down.

“Among the property offenses, the bottom line is a zero percent change.”

Krasner said the media and political opponents had warned during his election campaign that his policies would result in Philadelphia being overrun by violent criminals and “zombies.”

“But it turns out when you let some of the zombies out of the jail, they’re not really zombies,” he said.

He added that while he continued to face opposition from tough-on-crime advocates and from the Fraternal Order of Police, a substantial number of Philadelphians welcomed his reforms—including, he noted, the Guardians, the association representing African-American police officers in Philadelphia.

“The jail population…is dropping 13 a day [since] our policies went into effect,” he said. “So there’s no question there’s an impact, and there’s no question that the impact is significant.”

Elena Schwartz is a TCR news intern. She welcomes comments from readers.

from https://thecrimereport.org

‘Smarter Justice,’ Bail Reforms Make Headway Across U.S., Advocates Say

Progressive prosecutors and scientific pretrial release systems are reducing jail populations, say Jeremy Travis of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh. New policies by newly elected Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, including decriminalizing marijuana possession, were cited as examples.

Policies of prosecutors elected on progressive platforms around the U.S. show promise to reduce the nation’s incarceration totals, two experts told a gathering of state attorneys general.

Jeremy Travis of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation called “remarkable” and “stunning” a set of new policies announced by newly installed Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.

Krasner told his staff last month to offer shorter prison sentences in plea deals, decline to file marijuana possession and many prostitution charges, and explain case-by-case why taxpayers should pay thousands of dollars per year to incarcerate people.

Travis suggested that Krasner’s practices reflected some of the findings of a Misdemeanor Justice Project at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which he formerly headed. The project “seeks to understand the criminal justice response to lower-level offenses, from arrest to disposition.”

During a discussion of bail reform, Travis questioned why suspects charged with misdemeanors “should be put in jail [pretrial] if the typical sentence is non-custodial.”

Another panelist at the meeting, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, described the new prosecution trend in some cities as “smarter justice.”

Frosh noted that since 2013, police in his state have been empowered to issue citations instead of arresting people for many lower-level offenses, a change he said has “reduced the workload for judges, police and prosecutors.”

Travis and Frosh spoke on a panel Friday in Washington, D.C., at a conference organized by D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine for the National Association of Attorneys General on “Reducing Violence: Innovations That Work.”

Their main subject was efforts around the nation to eliminate or reduce the use of cash bail and base pre-trial release decisions on a scientific assessment of the risk that defendants will commit more crimes or fail to make future court appearances if they are released.

Maryland’s Court of Appeals last year overhauled the state’s bail system, requiring judges to consider whether defendants are able to make a bail payment when they set conditions for release.

Under the change, about one-fifth of defendants are being held because they can’t or don’t pay bail, down from 40 percent in the months before the reforms were enacted, chief state district judge Judge John Morrissey said in January.

Attorney General Frosh said on Friday that the policy shift has resulted in a six percent decline in the state’s jail population. “Overall, more people are being released,” he said.

Frosh was a proponent of bail reform when he served as a state senator. He persuaded his fellow senators to approve a reform plan but it “crashed and burned” in the other legislative body, the House of Delegates, amid opposition from the bail bond industry.

After he was elected Attorney General, Frosh took another tack–asking the state judiciary to impose the same kinds of changes he had advocated as a legislator.

Preliminary results show that the changes have worked so far, with defendants returning to court and committing new offenses after release at about the same rate as they did under the previous system, Frosh said.

Attempts by bail bondsman in the legislature to reverse the judicially-imposed policies have failed so far.

Travis said New Jersey has had a similar experience under a statewide change that went into effect last year, in which judges use an algorithm devised by his foundation to help make pretrial release decisions.

The initial results are “promising,” he said. The number of people charged with minor crimes who were locked up until trial because they couldn’t post bail fell by 20 percent in the system’s first year, found a report issued last month.

Travis acknowledged criticism that the new system perpetuates racial disparities in pretrial releases. Some say that more minorities continue to be denied release because risk assessment tools consider defendants’ prior criminal records, where minorities are disproportionately represented.

“It’s a tough one,” he said of the issue, which is still being studied.

Overall, Travis contended, it is good that more attention is being paid to the “profound” power of judges to decide on the pretrial release issue, which each year affects the family and employment situations of millions.

Seema Gajwani of the D.C. Attorney General’s office, who advocated for bail reform previously at the Public Welfare Foundation, told the conference that 11 million people in the U.S. cycle in and out of jails each year and that even having to serve a few days in jail after arrest can be “incredibly destabilizing” for many defendants.

“The number one reason that people stay in jail is that they are poor,” she said.

Although most of the discussion focused on low-level offenders, Frosh contended that the cash bail system doesn’t make much sense for alleged serious offenders, either.

He noted that the process essentially allows judges to set a money amount that defendants can pay to win release and “continue to wreak havoc.” The current bail system used in most of the U.S. “doesn’t make sense at any level,” Frosh said.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org