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Shapiro distances himself from bill to override Philly DA on gun crimes

Written by Ryan Briggs/WHYY | Jul 10, 2019 4:43 AM
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Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (left) and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

(Philadelphia) -- Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro wound up on opposing sides of a bill designed to give the AG's office new powers to prosecute gun crimes in Pennsylvania's largest city.

Proponents of the new legislation, which quietly passed last week, say expanding Shapiro's role will help stem the tide of shootings in the city. But critics say establishing so-called "concurrent jurisdiction" between the city's DA and the state AG weakens Philadelphia's home-rule powers, and Krasner's supporters say it's designed to undermine the progressive district attorney's efforts to choose which cases do -- and don't -- go to trial.

But on Tuesday, Shapiro was quick to distance himself from the legislation and pledged to continue collaborating with his Philadelphia counterpart.

"I'm going to continue to work in partnership with the District Attorney's Office," he said. "I didn't seek this law and I didn't advocate for it ... And it doesn't change anything."

Krasner, who has sought to cut the city's jail population and reduce criminal sentencing, has already seen federal U.S. Attorney William McSwain file tougher federal charges in a case in which Krasner's office accepted a plea deal, and Police Commissioner Richard Ross has implied that too many gun charges were being sent to diversionary programs. And Shapiro's office has notably hired some of the prosecutors dismissed by Krasner during his first week in office.

However, Shapiro's comments were also a surprise to some of the state lawmakers who said they were confused about the language in the bill and stunned by its swift and near-unanimous passage during the hectic climax of Harrisburg's budget season.

State Rep. Chris Rabb, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee and was one of the few Democrats who voted against the final version of the bill, was succinct when asked who was lobbying for the concurrent-jurisdiction legislation.

"The attorney general," he said.

Rabb allowed that Republican State Rep. Martina White, who cosponsored the legislation, and Philadelphia's Fraternal Order of Police were active in promoting the bill as well. But State Rep. Mary Jo Daley also told the online news outlet The Intercept -- which first broke news of the legislation -- that Shapiro's office had sought to quickly pass concurrent-jurisdiction language.

Rabb called it "a pretty bad bill," and echoed other critics' observations that the language was pared down to only extend Shapiro's powers in Philadelphia and only for the duration of Krasner's first term in office.

"It was amended to punish Philadelphia. That's ultimately what Martina White's bill did," he said.

Gov. Tom Wolf similarly criticized the final amendment for failing to create a statewide concurrent-jurisdiction system. Advocates of this language counter that Philadelphia drives much of the state's gun crime.

"District Attorney Krasner deserves a direct explanation from Attorney General Shapiro of how this targeted attack on his local authority came to be authored, passed without the apparent knowledge of most lawmakers, and signed into law by a Democratic governor who otherwise is supportive of efforts to dramatically reform our system of criminal justice," Krasner's office said in a statement.

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The aftermath of a shooting at a graduation party in Philadelphia, Monday, June 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In an earlier comment to The Intercept, Roh said she had "serious concerns" with the bill "and what it signifies for the justice movement at large."

Shapiro still struck a positive tone Tuesday. He pointed to a collaborative relationship between his and Krasner's offices through the state-funded Gun Violence Task Force, which focuses on clearing illegal guns off city streets.

"[Concurrent jurisdiction] doesn't change the great, collaborative work that's being done literally right now by the task force," Shapiro said. "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 anyone else, acts territorial."

The AG made these remarks while flanked by numerous local law enforcement officials, during a press conference to announce a joint drug raid that had broken up a fentanyl ring in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood. Among them was Police Commissioner Ross and Executive Deputy AG Jen Selber, who left the city's District Attorney's Office for Shapiro's about one year before Krasner's inauguration.

Krasner, meanwhile, was not in attendance. A staffer from his office observed the proceedings along with reporters and other onlookers.

WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.

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