Philadelphia leaders say SEPTA prosecutor would usurp DA Larry Krasner’s authority

Krasner and his supporters say the law is a continuation of the conservative effort to remove him from office

By: - December 18, 2023 6:31 pm

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner (Jared Piper/Philadelphia City Council/City & State Pa.).

Community and faith leaders spoke out Monday against a new law they say will strip Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office of its authority to prosecute crime in much of the city.

The legislation, passed in the House and Senate and signed by Gov. Josh Shapiro last week, allows the state attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate and pursue criminal charges for crimes committed on public transit property in Philadelphia.

It was sponsored by state Sen. Wayne Langerholc (R-Clearfield) and other conservative lawmakers who have objected to Krasner’s progressive criminal justice policies.

“This is an opportunity to disenfranchise the 75% of Philadelphia who voted in the last election and the 72% before that who voted in the previous election to say this is the person we wanted as our district attorney,” said Rev. Chris Kimmenez, executive director of Healing Communities PA and associate pastor for social justice at People’s Baptist Church in west Philadelphia.

Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia), who opposed the legislation, said it can be construed to give the special prosecutor exclusive jurisdiction to prosecute any crime that happens within 500 feet of a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) station. That would cover most of the populated areas of the city, Street said.

“It is blatantly unconstitutional and it is wrong to take away prosecutorial discretion from the voters of Philadelphia,” Street said “We should get to choose how cases are prosecuted, who exercises that discretion. The citizens of Philadelphia have overwhelmingly voted for DA Krasner.”

Krasner and his supporters say the law is a continuation of the effort to remove him from office by conservative lawmakers who blame his policies of not prosecuting minor drug possession charges and low level retail theft for a rise in crime. While crime spiked during the pandemic, violent crime has declined in 2023. 

In the previous legislative session, the state House passed articles of impeachment charging Krasner with failing to carry out the duties of his office by adopting policies aimed at ending mass incarceration by employing prosecutorial discretion not to pursue minor offenses. 

The state Supreme Court is considering whether the Senate can continue with a trial on the charges since a new legislative session has started and whether the General Assembly has the authority to impeach local elected officials.

Pa. Supreme Court justices question GOP effort to impeach Philly DA Larry Krasner

“Let us understand what is happening here — in only one county in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania — the biggest city, the most diverse city, the one that is overwhelmingly Democratic. In that one city, a Republican-led measure has just erased 155,102 votes for the current DA,” Krasner said Thursday.

The law passed along party lines in the Senate in May but it received strong bipartisan support, with a 159-44 vote in the House last week. Many Philadelphia lawmakers voted in opposition.

Lauren Cristella, president and CEO of the Philadelphia-based good government group Committee of Seventy, said she expects Krasner will challenge the special prosecutor law as unconstitutional. There are also many questions about how it can be interpreted – such as whether the special prosecutor would have authority over crimes only on SEPTA vehicles or also at bus stops.

Cristella also noted that the law is clearly directed at Krasner. The law expires on Dec. 31, 2026, the same day Krasner’s term ends.   

“I always question when we are making laws about people instead of processes or systems writ large, and this feels very personal,” Cristella said.

Laws that nullify the choices of voters are also particularly harmful to democracy, Cristella said, adding that voters don’t need another reason to believe that their vote might not matter.

“When you’re creating a set of rules because you don’t like the way that one person is conducting themselves in the office to which they were elected, that should be concerning to all Pennsylvanians,” she said.

Attorney General Michelle Henry, a Democrat, has 30 days from the bill’s signing to appoint a special prosecutor, although Krasner’s office noted that Henry could find the law unconstitutional. On Monday, Philadelphia City Councilmembers Kenyatta Johnson and Jamie Gauthier called on Henry to do so. 

The special prosecutor bill was part of a frenzy of about three dozen pieces of legislation that the General Assembly sent to Shapiro for his signature in its last session week of the year. Those included a number of Democratic legislative priorities that Shapiro laid out in his March budget address, such as tax credits for child care and an expansion of the state earned income tax credit to match the federal tax credit. 

Asked about the special prosecutor bill during a late night news conference on Wednesday, Shapiro said: “This was a package that was agreed to by both majority leaders and I intend to sign all these bills.” 

Tim Brown, organizing director at Philadelphia Neighborhood Networks, offered an assessment of the political deal-making that led House Democrats and Shapiro to accept the special prosecutor legislation. 

“The Democrats get to claim, of course, the tax credits for their constituents. This was a political calculation on their part, and it helps them avoid having Republicans run ads against them in November saying that they cared more about some guy from Philadelphia than he did about their own constituents,” Brown said.

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.

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