Though we at The Open File expend most of our energy highlighting the silent yet deep problems of prosecutorial misconduct and the abuse and expansion of prosecutorial authority, it is important to acknowledge positive changes. While a number of recent District Attorney elections have signaled a serious shift in public priorities in some jurisdictions around the country, no change has been as profound as the one happening in Philadelphia. As the headline for Shaun King’s recent piece for The Intercept proclaims, “Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner Promised a Criminal Justice Revolution; He’s Exceeding Expectations.” For lawyers and sticklers, the proof is now in black-and-white: a memorandum that Krasner circulated to his office last month says it all.
The memo is ground-breaking, of that there can be no doubt. Simply consider what it achieves:
- It effectively decriminalizes marijuana possession;
- It largely decriminalizes sex work and diverts some individuals arrested who have multiple prostitution convictions to a problem-solving court;
- It widely promotes greater diversion of cases from criminal court;
- It encourages more participation in re-entry programs;
- It sets a default by which plea offers (in most types of cases) must be on the least punitive end of the range provided in the guidelines;
- It requires the State to put the costs of sentencing on the record;
- It reduces the length of probation that State requests.
In five clear, simple, remarkable pages. For all of the hand-wringing other prosecutors have done about how difficult it will be for them to lead a fight against mass incarceration, Krasner is doing something few people expect to see from elected officials anymore: fulfilling promises he made on the campaign trail.
Others, including Maura Ewing, have written well and extensively about Krasner’s leadership, and about the meaning of this memo. While there will be roadblocks on the path to change—for example, judges are already stifling the office’s effort to provide less harsh outcomes to juveniles who previously faced life-without-parole sentences—Krasner is leveraging prosecutorial power to help “end mass incarceration and bring balance back to sentencing.” So long as prosecutorial power exists in its current unchecked form, this is precisely the way in which it should be used. One can only keep their fingers crossed that voters (and prospective candidates) in other jurisdictions starved of progress and hope are paying attention to what can be accomplished.