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Philadelphia's reform prosecutor moves against over-charging

Despite the obvious momentum for criminal justice reform demonstrated in the recent election and the potential passage of the First Step Act, many prosecutors around the country continue to engage in harsh, "tough on crime" tactics. One exception who bears watching is Larry Krasner, the elected district attorney for Philadelphia.

We mentioned Krasner in May, when he announced that Philadelphia would no longer prosecute marijuana possession offenses. A number of jurisdictions have followed Krasner's lead on the issue.

Krasner also changed his office's bail and criminal charging policies, among other reforms. The 300 prosecutors who work for his office have been instructed not to ask for bail in minor cases, which will keep innumerable people out of destructive pre-trial detention.

The assistant DAs have also been told to begin their plea negotiations at the low end of Pennsylvania's sentencing guidelines. The effect will be to reduce the average sentences being handed down, in an effort to reduce over-incarceration.

Recently, Krasner instituted a new policy on murder charges. In the past, the goal has been to send every person convicted of murder to prison for the rest of their lives. Meeting that goal, however, means filing the most serious possible charges in every case -- a practice that reflects neither reality nor the structure of the law.

Now, Krasner must personally sign off on any plea deal that exceeds 15 or 30 years in prison.

"We are not going to overcharge," he commented to Slate. "We are not going to try to coerce defendants. We are going to proceed on charges that are supported by the facts in the case, period. The era of trying to get away with the highest charge regardless of the facts is over."

In the long "tough on crime" era, prosecutors have been urged to file the most serious possible charges and fight for the toughest possible sentences in every case. This often means multiple charges, stacked sentences and coercive plea offers. These practices drive mass-incarceration and result in shockingly harsh sentences compared to the underlying crimes.

If we are to reduce the number of people we incarcerate, a new policy toward violent crime is necessary. Of the approximately 1.3 million state prison inmates, over 55 percent were incarcerated for violent offenses.

Krasner is walking the walk. According to one analysis, Krasner has chosen to charge third-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter in six cases where first- or second-degree murder charges could have been brought.

It is a political risk to fight against overcharging in violent crime cases, but a necessary one. We hope prosecutors across the country will reexamine their own charging policies. 

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