Homicides in Philadelphia are now on pace to surpass 500 this year, a record never before recorded in the city. What the city’s sobering murder statistic leaves out is the “quieter” raw gun crime that does not result in death, but often permanently disfigures or injures victims and bystanders, and terrorizes entire neighobrhoods. There is a wave of fear spreading across the City of Brotherly Love.
Much of this violence stems from a surge of retaliatory attacks between rival gangs and criminals. A shooting provokes a grievance, and the grievance provokes the next shooting. With prosecutions plummeting, why wouldn’t families and gangs take the power into their own hands? The justice system is not working for them.
A debate has now emerged among Philadelphia elected officials about how to stop the violence and whether to declare gun violence an “emergency.” Officials such as At-Large City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier and Controller Rebekka Rhynhart support such a measure. Mayor Jim Kenney has demurred.
Missing from this debate, however, is any attempt to address the core public policy problem at hand. Prosecutions of gun crimes have plummeted under incumbent D.A. Larry Krasner. The Krasner office has withdrawn or dismissed 65 percent of gun charges this year, up from 17 percent in 2015. Knowing that there is such a high chance of getting back on the streets, guilty pleas in gun crime cases have fallen from 376 in 2015 to 148 in 2020.
Missing from the present debate is any attempt to address the core public policy problem at hand. Prosecutions of gun crimes have plummeted.
And because those who are arrested are either freed quickly due to low bail, or not prosecuted to the full extent of the law, witnesses may become more reluctant to work with police or testify in a trial — and why wouldn’t they? Less than a year ago, a Philadelphia man, Khaleaf Sistrunk, was killed in what his mother says was retaliation for his cooperation with a police investigation. “They shot him because they said he was a snitch,” his mother, who asked the media not to use her name for fear of retribution, said at the time. “He was trying to do the right thing and he got killed for it.”
There are more Khaleaf Sistrunks out there.
This cycle undoubtedly emboldens defendants to avoid guilty pleas, and hampers the ability of prosecutors to succeed in the cases that they choose to pursue — if they choose to pursue a case or a charge at all.
Guilty verdicts for gun-related crimes have nosedived from 101 in 2015 to just 29 in 2019 at this point in the year, according to the D.A.’s own data.
One thing that is at an all-time high from the prosecutor’s office are excuses. D.A. Krasner most recently used Republicans in the state General Assembly as a scapegoat, despite gun crime having fallen while they have controlled the state legislature (the better part of the past 30 years). The crux of his point? That we need new gun laws as a Commonwealth. But as the data shows, he is not prosecuting the gun crimes on the books — so what on earth would passing new ones bring to victims of crime in Philadelphia?
Progressives and most elected officials are burying their heads because the solution to the problem of spiraling violence — to get the people making our neighborhoods dangerous off the street through successful prosecutions — is politically inconvenient. Instead, they are offering social programs and political declarations.
A recent editorial from the Philadelphia Inquirer is exemplary of this inability to acknowledge the obvious solution at hand. Their editorial board proposed “10 ideas to stem the tide of gun violence,” including suggestions to “fund,” “expand,” “give,” “create,” and “offer money,” for a myriad of services and programs. Nowhere in that list, however, is the notion that the existing law enforcement apparatus in Philadelphia should enforce the law.
Even If we charitably concede that all of these money-focused programs might help, then progressives are still faced with the fact that such programs are long term ideas. They’ll take years to bear fruit — and victims of gun crime in Philadelphia don’t have years to wait.
Some will suggest that a return to higher bails and rigorous prosecution of gun charges is a return to racially-biased policies.
In response, we can only offer the words of an unidentified resident, who interrupted a neighborhood tour by Mayor Jim Kenney and Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier:
“All of this means nothin’. This means absolutely nothing — until you all strengthen up those gun laws, we’re gonna keep getting killed… there are kids being killed by punks that have gun charges already on them, and they’re in the streets.”
To that resident, we express our sympathies and agreement — though with a slight amendment to his pleas: the best solution that can offer quick relief is for the D.A. to prosecute existing gun crimes and stop enabling this cycle of violence. Little else matters if more than two-thirds of the gun crime prosecutions in the city are dismissed or withdrawn.
Anyone in the media or political leadership who instinctively recoils at such an obvious truth is likely more concerned with their political prerogatives than the growing number of mourning families in our city.
Before any new social programs are enacted, and before any “emergency” declarations are declared, we’d be relieved just to see the D.A. do his job.
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