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Cardella: Philly Justice and Injustice

Is Larry Krasner the person who’ll finally bring justice to our criminal justice system? Or is he the villain who bears responsibility for the disrespect for law enforcement? It’s hard to find a Philadelphian who doesn’t have a strong opinion on that. Krasner is unquestionably the most polarizing figure in this city since Frank Rizzo was mayor.

Two years ago, relatively few people knew Larry Krasner. He had been a practicing civil rights attorney. An advocate for victims’ rights. An attorney whose clients included members of OCCUPY NOW and BLACK LIVES MATTER. And then Krasner joined the race to succeed disgraced DA Seth Williams. He pulled off a stunning upset in a crowded field in the Democratic primary and won the general election in November 2017. Philadelphia hasn’t been the same since.

Krasner’s critics say the victory was a fluke. But Krasner believes he won a mandate to implement his policies on criminal reform. And as he’s tried to do just that, he’s gotten a lot of attention from progressives nationally. Even his critics will admit that he has been largely successful in implementing such reforms as reducing the city’s prison population. As reported in the Philadelphia Tribune and others in the mainstream media, Krasner has attacked the problem of what civil rights supporters consider the mass incarceration of blacks. He’s done so by, among other things, diverting drug users from the criminal justice system. He’s directed his staff to stop asking for bail in cases of low-level crimes. To be fair to Krasner, efforts in this area were being made before he was elected DA. But as his critics claim, Krasner often seems insensitive toward the victims in his cases.

Krasner’s critics have strongly opposed his actions to divert a number of gun-related crimes to a state pre-trial intervention program for non-violent offenders with no prior or limited record. The aim of the program is to rehabilitate the offender and quickly process the disposition of charges, thus doing away with costly and time-consuming court proceedings. But many Krasner critics think the plan is just another example of liberals being soft on crime.

Unfortunately, Krasner’s use of the program, no matter what you think of it, has been implemented at a time when Philadelphia is suffering an increasing number of homicides. It’s impossible to prove a direct correlation between Krasner’s policies and the wave of violent crime, but that hasn’t stopped Krasner’s detractors from doing so.

As a result of his civil rights activities before becoming DA, Krasner found himself on the opposite side of the police. Thus, he came into office being perceived as anti-cop by the Fraternal Order of Police and many of its member police officers. Krasner added to that perception by being the first district attorney in 20 years to have the guts to prosecute an on-duty officer for a shooting.

During his time in office, Krasner has feuded with, among others, John McNesby, head of the FOP, and William McSwain, the Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Soon after he took office, Krasner asked for and got wholesale resignations of the DA staff he inherited. That action and the feuds with the FOP and McSwain can be described as being a natural consequence of differing philosophies of law enforcement. But it has also created powerful enemies for Krasner. And it’s resulted in a split between the entities responsible for enforcing our laws. Never a good thing for fighting crime in a big city such as Philadelphia.

Not surprisingly, the division between Krasner’s office and the city’s police force has become ensnared with Philadelphia’s ever-present racial divide. And nothing exemplifies that more than the furor raised over the “not guilty” verdict in the recent Michael White case. A brief summary of the facts here: Michael White, an African-American male, stabbed a white male, Sean Schellenger, to death during a scuffle in the Rittenhouse Square area. Neither man knew the other before the incident. Some legal observers expected that White would be charged with third-degree murder. Krasner intervened. Tried the case on involuntary manslaughter. White was found “not guilty.” The jury found him guilty of the relatively minor charge of tampering with evidence. The case has inflamed the public along racial lines. Krasner’s critics argue that Krasner should’ve, in effect, overcharged White and then negotiated downward to gain a conviction on a lesser charge.  But one of Krasner’s sworn goals was to reduce the use of overcharging which has resulted in disproportionate numbers of blacks being behind bars serving longer sentences. What’s left unsaid is, if you overcharge a defendant and he or she is convicted of the more serious charge, where is the justice in that?

No doubt that Krasner has rocked a boat that badly needed rocking. Criminal justice reform in Philadelphia is long overdue. In the long run, the public and the law enforcement community will be safer for it. But there ought to be a way to be fair to the accused without forgetting the victims.

Failure is not an option.

You can see Tom Cardella talk football on Monday at 6 p.m. with his guest, Mike Quick, streaming live on wbcbsports.com, or hear the rebroadcast on 610 AM, ESPN Radio.

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