The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The impeachment of Philadelphia’s DA is misguided and a bad precedent

District Attorney Larry Krasner speaks in Philadelphia on May 14, 2021. (Claudia Lauer/AP)

The Pennsylvania House has impeached liberal Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, setting up a possible trial in the state Senate that could lead to his removal from office. Though Mr. Krasner’s approach to law enforcement raises genuine concerns, especially in light of the peril that crime poses in Philadelphia, the effort to oust him is misguided, an affront to local control and democratic choice. If successful, the recall would set a dangerous precedent.

Mr. Krasner, first elected in 2017 as the city’s top prosecutor, was overwhelmingly reelected last year in a city with a large African American population. Many Black leaders have supported his progressive policies, which have included reducing sentences and prison time and treating drug use as a public health issue. But as Philadelphia’s murder rate has risen, taking a high toll in minority neighborhoods, he has also become a growing target of criticism. When Mr. Krasner declared last December that there was no “crisis of crime” in the city, former mayor Michael Nutter, a Democrat who is Black, wrote a scorching op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It takes a certain audacity of ignorance and white privilege to say that right now,” Mr. Nutter wrote. (The district attorney subsequently apologized for what he said were ill-chosen words that “did not acknowledge the pain and the hurt that people feel in the city of Philadelphia.”)

All of this is something for the Philadelphia voters who elected Mr. Krasner to judge. Instead, despite the fact that he has committed no crime or misconduct, the state legislature has stepped in. The Republican-controlled House last week voted 107-85, largely along party lines, to impeach Mr. Krasner, blaming his policies for the city’s rise in violent crime. Republicans rushed the vote during a lame-duck session, a day before the final results of the midterm elections showed that Democrats have won control of the chamber. It will now be up to the Senate to decide whether and when to hold a trial. A two-thirds vote would be needed to remove Mr. Krasner; Republicans have a majority but not enough to convict without support from some Democrats.

Impeachment of an official elected by voters is extremely rare in Pennsylvania, employed only twice in 235 years in cases involving judges. That lawmakers didn’t impeach prosecutors who had been accused of actual crimes — including a predecessor of Mr. Krasner who was indicted on corruption charges while in office and ended up sentenced to five years for bribery — makes the move against Mr. Krasner all the more misbegotten.

Mr. Krasner is part of a wave of prosecutors elected in recent years who have pushed communities to move away from indiscriminate application of long sentences and toward policies that seek to divert nonviolent offenders from the criminal justice system to drug treatment, mental health care or other programs. Prosecutions have been reserved for the most serious crimes. These progressive prosecutors have faced pushback from conservatives and traditional law enforcement officials who allege policies such as no cash bail or not trying juveniles as adults have caused the surge in violent crime since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

It is too soon to conclude that there is a linkage between progressive reforms and spikes in crime. Some communities with more traditional prosecutors have seen a rise in violent crime, and one study found that homicides rose by lower amounts in places with progressive ones in place. Other studies have reached similar conclusions. It’s noteworthy that in the recent midterms, progressive prosecutors still managed to prevail in both red and blue states — even as Republicans sought to double down on crime as an issue.

The election of prosecutors is premised on the principle that voters should have the power to set the criminal justice agenda they think is best suited for their communities. Voters, right or wrong, have twice chosen Mr. Krasner. That lawmakers in Harrisburg want to substitute their views not only subverts the will of the voters but also potentially makes any local elected official a political target.

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