Philly's progressive prosecutor, facing impeachment trial, has authority on transit crimes diverted

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FILE - Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner speaks with members of the media during a news conference in Philadelphia on Oct. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

HARRISBURG, Pa. – A new law taking aim at Philadelphia’s progressive prosecutor creates a new position that diverts authority from the twice-elected district attorney, with Republican lawmakers arguing the legislation is necessary to prosecute crimes they say aren’t pursued. It's the latest example of progressive prosecutors across the country facing political crosswinds.

The measure, which was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro last week as part of a flurry of bills wrapping up a months-overdue budget, creates a new special prosecutor role that has the authority to investigate and prosecute crimes that occur on the city’s public transit system, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, known as SEPTA.

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There were a tidal wave of progressive prosecutor victories several years ago, campaigning on policies that typically seek diversion to mental health treatment or drug abuse treatment for low-level crimes, efforts to hold police more accountable, and proactively try to free inmates who were wrongfully convicted.

But those prosecutors have been met with the backlash and scrutiny from conservative lawmakers for their policies. In San Francisco, Chesa Boudin was recalled by voters, while St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner resigned following a turbulent and heavily criticized tenure from Republican lawmakers in Missouri.

There’s been a number of attempts nationally to erode the autonomy of elected officials like Krasner, which is disrespecting the will of voters, said Miriam Krinsky, executive director for Fair and Just Prosecution, which works with prosecutors around the country on criminal justice reform.

“I think with the impact and success of a growing movement among communities to bring about change in the criminal legal system, it’s not surprising there are some who are wedded to the status quo and don’t want to move forward and insist on abiding by failed punitive practices of that past,” she said.

Larry Krasner, the Democratic Philadelphia district attorney, called it an “attack on democracy,” but Republican lawmakers, and dozens of Democrats who joined them, insist the legislation is necessary to prosecute crimes they say aren’t pursued.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Wayne Langerholc, a Republican from Cambria County, dismissed the assertions that the bill would take any authority from the district attorney, saying that the special prosecutor would pick and choose what crimes to pursue. Otherwise, it would go to Krasner's office.

There was a failure, he added, of the district attorney's “liberal, woke” policies, saying high-profile violent crimes, like gun crimes, weren't adequately prosecuted. In a rare sign of legislative bipartisanship, a number of Democrats joined with Republicans, 159-44, to pass the bill through the House.

“This is about safety, pure and simple,” he said. “It’s another tool for law enforcement on SEPTA. The district attorney should be welcoming this with open arms, because he’s getting additional resources.”

Krasner has said Republicans’ claims are disagreements over policy. He said the new legislation was unconstitutional and disenfranchised voters in the nation’s sixth-largest city. A spokesperson for his office said they were awaiting a decision from the attorney general’s office before challenging the law in court.

“This is an attack on democracy,” Krasner said at a news conference last week. “This is normalizing the erasure of Philadelphia votes. This is what people who want to be dictators do.”

Legislation seeking to create a similar office was vetoed by former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf last year, who said in his veto message it “usurps the will of the voters.”

It is rare for state lawmakers to take away jurisdiction from the district attorneys who are the top law enforcement officials in Pennsylvania’s counties, but the new transit prosecutor isn’t the first time that Republican lawmakers have chipped away at Krasner’s authority.

Legislation trying to impose term limits didn’t see traction, but Republicans successfully pushed through a bill that gave the state attorney general’s office shared authority to pursue gun crimes in Philadelphia. They argued that Krasner wasn’t trying hard enough to tamp down rising homicides, although Krasner and then-Attorney General Shapiro argued that the law was pointless because they already had a joint gun crimes task force.

Republicans who led the House last session voted to impeach Krasner, but a trial in the GOP-controlled Senate has stalled while a lawsuit is considered by the state Supreme Court. Krasner was first elected in 2017.

The state attorney general has 30 days to appoint the new special prosecutor, who can’t have worked for their office or Krasner’s in the past six years. The prosecutor’s work would be reimbursed by the city, and the attorney general’s office would foot the bill for a per diem salary, equal to the rate of the district attorney.

Brett Hambright, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said they “are in the process of reviewing this newly passed legislation in order to fully understand the parameters of the jurisdictional complexities, what the office’s responsibilities will be under the law, and how the funding will occur.”

SEPTA is working closely with the attorney general's office to understand the new law and its implementation, agency spokesman Andrew Busch said.

The law is active through 2026. Krasner’s current term ends in 2026.


Brooke Schultz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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