Harrisburg, PA – Democratic legislators were surprise after they passed a $2 million appropriation for the gun violence task force that also gave the state attorney general the authority to prosecute gun cases declined by the Philadelphia district attorney.
The law, which only applies to Philadelphia, acts as a pilot program that sunsets in two years, after Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s first term is up, according to the Philly Voice.
The law applies only to Philadelphia, and no other jurisdiction in the state.
Republican Pennsylvania State Representative Martina White, who proposed that specific amendment in House Bill 1614, said she did so as a direct response to Philadelphia’s gun violence epidemic, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
“We heard loud and clear from the police commissioner [Richard Ross] that illegal gun arrests have jumped in 2019, and we felt this was really appropriate, because it allows the attorney general to assist in addressing those types of crimes,” White said.
Krasner has alienated many in the law enforcement community with his stated goal of reducing the number of criminals who are incarcerated, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
This maneuver by GOP lawmakers will allow police to go directly to the Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro for charges and bypass Krasner’s office altogether, according to The Intercept.
“The DA continues to have the authority to prosecute these crimes, should he decide to start enforcing the law,” said GOP State Representative Rob Kauffman, the bill’s primary sponsor.
The new law is seen as an attempt to rein in the progressive district attorney who fired more than 30 experienced staff members when he took office, according to The Intercept.
Most of the prosecutorial staff that Krasner fired has been hired by the state’s attorney general’s office.
The Democratic attorney general was endorsed by the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the Philly Voice reported.
The original idea for the legislation did not single out Philadelphia and was more geared toward helping smaller municipalities gain access to resources by granting the Pennsylvania Attorney General “concurrent jurisdiction” alongside district attorneys to prosecute illegal gun possession and illegal gun sales or transfers, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
But when the bill failed to advance, White proposed the Philadelphia-only provision as an amendment to another bill and said she felt it was important to bring more resources to bear on gun violence in the city she represented.
She said that the two-year provision allowed lawmakers time to assess whether the attorney general’s concurrent jurisdiction should be expanded statewide.
“The idea of local law enforcement shopping around their cases is not anything new," Lauren Ouziel, a former federal prosecutor, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It sounds like the state legislature added on a new customer [police] can bring cases to.”
Shapiro’s office supported the original bill that proposed concurrent jurisdiction statewide and advocated for its quick passage.
Joe Grace, a spokesman for the attorney general, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that prosecutors felt that concurrent jurisdiction would help track guns used in crimes.
But Grace said Shapiro’s office hadn’t pushed for the Philadelphia-only amendment.
The Philadelphia Mayor’s Office said they were not consulted regarding the legislation, but said Mayor Jim Kenney would “welcome all assistance from the Commonwealth to prosecute crimes that contribute to gun violence in Philadelphia.”
“In addition to these types of efforts, we would welcome efforts by the General Assembly to pass common sense gun safety laws that would make our city safer,” the mayor’s office said.
But some Democratic lawmakers claimed their colleagues passed the measure without understanding what it did.
Democratic State Representative Chris Rabb, one of the few who actually voted against it, called the law a “poison pill” that would “severely impair DA Krasner’s ability to continue his office’s work on criminal justice reform toward bolstering community safety and racial justice,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Rabb called it a “legislative boondoggle that has yet again punished Philadelphia for fighting on its own behalf, and will supplant the widely embraced priorities of a duly elected district attorney with the backroom agenda of the special interest groups who feel most threatened by his reforms.”
The district attorney’s office abruptly cancelled a press conference about funding for the Gun Violence Task Force on Monday morning that would have announced a joint initiative with the attorney general’s office, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Krasner spokeswoman Jane Roh said the district attorney’s office was worried about the impact of the legislation and the precedent it was setting.
Krasner “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 [the law] does, the potential precedent it sets, and what it signifies for the justice movement at large,” Roh said.