A Kinder, Gentler Philly

Well, at least when it comes to Philly’s criminal justice system (boldface mine):

The most significant and groundbreaking reform is how he has instructed assistant district attorneys to wield their most powerful tool: plea offers. Over 90 percent of criminal cases nationwide are decided in plea bargains, a system which has been broken beyond repair by mandatory minimum sentences and standardized prosecutorial excess. In an about-face from how these transactions typically work, Krasner’s 300 lawyers are to start many plea offers at the low end of sentencing guidelines. For most nonviolent and nonsexual crimes, or economic crimes below a $50,000 threshold, Krasner’s lawyers are now to offer defendants sentences below the bottom end of the state’s guidelines. So, for example, if a person with no prior convictions is accused of breaking into a store at night and emptying the cash register, he would normally face up to 14 months in jail. Under Krasner’s paradigm, he’ll be offered probation. If prosecutors want to use their discretion to deviate from these guidelines, say if a person has a particularly troubling rap sheet, [District Attorney] Krasner must personally sign off.

“It’s the mirror of a lot of offices saying, ‘If you don’t ask for the max you’ve got to get my permission,’ ” says David Rudovsky, a prominent Philadelphia civil rights attorney. For longtime career prosecutors, this will take some getting used to. “You want to be sure your assistants are actually doing it,” Rudovsky says.

Krasner’s lawyers are also now to decline charges for marijuana possession, no matter the weight, effectively decriminalizing possession of the drug in the city for all nonfederal cases. Sex workers will not be charged with prostitution unless they have more than two priors, in which case they’ll be diverted to a specialized court. Retail theft under $500 is no longer a misdemeanor in the eyes of Philly prosecutors, but a summary offense—the lowest possible criminal charge. And when ADAs give probation charges they are to opt for the lower end of the possible spectrum. “Criminological studies show that most violations of probation occur within the first 12 months,” the memo reads, “Assuming that a defendant is violation free for 12 months, any remaining probation is simply excess baggage requiring unnecessary expenditure of funds for supervision.” When a person does break the rules of probation, minor infractions such as missing a PO meeting are not to be punished with jail time or probation revocation, and more serious infractions are to be disciplined with no more than two years in jail.

In a move that may have less impact on the lives of defendants, but is very on-brand for Kranser, prosecutors must now calculate the amount of money a sentence would cost before recommending it to a judge, and argue why the cost is justified. He estimates that it costs $115 a day, or $42,000 a year, to incarcerate one person. So, if a prosecutor seeks a three-year sentence, she must state, on the record, that it would cost taxpayers $126,000 and explain why she thinks this cost is justified. Krasner reminds his attorneys that the cost of one year of unnecessary incarceration “is in the range of the cost of one year’s salary for a beginning teacher, police officer, fire fighter, social worker, Assistant District Attorney, or addiction counselor.”

It will be interesting to see if this works. Hopefully, it does.

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