New law seems unlikely to alter Philly gun law prosecutions

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner (Photo by Jared Piper/PHL Council)

Pennsylvania's top prosecutor said Tuesday he does not intend to use new unilateral authority to prosecute gun crimes in Philadelphia under a state law passed after criticism of the city district attorney's handling of gun law violations.

A spokesman for Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, said he sought the so-called "concurrent jurisdiction" with county district attorneys across the state but did not ask for it to be limited to the city, as provided in the version that passed the Legislature last month.

Shapiro spokesman Joe Grace said the statewide authority could help agents track guns linked to crimes when they cross county lines, but the Legislature instead overwhelmingly approved the more narrow provision, and timed it to expire in about two years. That's about when Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner's current term will expire.

Krasner's spokeswoman, Jane Roh, said in an email that the Democrat "was elected by an overwhelming margin to push for badly needed criminal justice reforms in one of the most highly incarcerated big cities in the country, and he has serious concerns about what this law does, the potential precedent it sets, and what it signifies for the justice movement at large."

Roh called the bill a "targeted attack on his local authority."

The bill, which received only a small handful of "no" votes, was partially designed to respond to a May decision by the state Supreme Court by specifying that police and agents with the attorney general's office can participate in task forces as long as their departments have given their consent.

But it also provided $2.5 million for a gun violence task force working in Philadelphia and gave Shapiro the independent power to prosecute straw purchases or sales, or felons who possess firearms.

Krasner, who regularly sued the Philadelphia police as a civil lawyer before being elected district attorney on a platform to reverse "mass incarceration," has been much more likely than his predecessor to allow defendants in gun cases to enter a diversion program designed for first-time, nonviolent offenders, according to an analysis by The Philadelphia Inquirer.

"At a time when vulnerable communities are hurting from poverty, discriminatory policing, draconian incarceration policies and gun violence, the justice movement must clearly and forcefully reject political shots at reformers like Larry Krasner intended to maintain the status quo," Roh said.

The lawmaker who sponsored the provision, Rep. Martina White, R-Philadelphia, said her objective is to curb gun violence, calling the concurrent jurisdiction a tool in that effort.

"The whole vision here is just to make sure that everyone is working together to address this," White said.

The policy dispute is playing out at bloody time for the city, where the rate of homicides this year is about the same as it was in 2018, when Philadelphia recorded 349 of them, the most since 2007.

Grace said the attorney general's office did not advocate for concurrent jurisdiction in Philadelphia and "does not plan to unilaterally use this authority."

At a news conference in Philadelphia on Tuesday, Shapiro said the gun violence task force's collaboration will continue.

"People are dying every single day in the city of Philadelphia because of everyday gun violence, and it's critically important that no one - my office or anybody else - acts territorial. Instead, we all need to do what you see happening here, which is work together to deal with the problems that the people of Philadelphia want us to deal with" Shapiro said.

Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, said there are not concerns in other counties about district attorneys not pursuing certain gun crimes.

"My understanding is that the district attorney was not prosecuting in particular two specific crimes relating to the illegal possession of firearms in the city of Philadelphia," Kauffman said Tuesday. "That was an issue of concern and contention."