Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro on Friday said he would support a repeal of a controversial law that stripped Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner of the sole authority to prosecute certain firearms violations in his home county.
Shapiro’s new stance on the bill, which was reported by The Intercept on Monday, came in response to protesters at the annual Netroots Nation conference in Philadelphia. During a panel with Democratic attorneys general Kathy Jennings of Delaware and Keith Ellison of Minnesota, organizers from the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration and Reclaim Philadelphia took over a microphone and interrupted Shapiro’s introductory remarks. “The people of Philadelphia demand your attention right now,” an organizer with Reclaim Philadelphia told Shapiro.
Activists pressed Shapiro on whether he’d support the progressive momentum Krasner’s office had brought to the district attorney’s office, if he’d support second chances for people sentenced to life without parole, his support for the death penalty, and why he’s stymied efforts to open additional safe injection sites in the city.
Their most pressing concern, though, was whether he’d commit to not using Pennsylvania’s newly passed HB 1614, which gave the attorney general’s office concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute certain firearms violations in Philadelphia County — and no other county in the state. The law allows the attorney general’s office to cut Krasner out of the prosecutorial process, something Shapiro said he would not do after facing criticism over the measure’s passage.
“I didn’t ask for it, nor did I advocate for it,” Shapiro told the activists, pointing to his office’s collaboration with Krasner’s office on the Philadelphia gun violence task force. “I will not change how that works. The Philadelphia district attorney’s office will continue to prosecute those cases,” he said. “I didn’t ask for this law, I don’t want this law.”
“I would be happy if the legislature repealed it.”
Shapiro continued, “If legislators want to repeal this law, that is certainly fine with me. And I’m gonna continue to collaborate with the district attorney here in Philadelphia and the district attorneys across Pennsylvania to make sure that our communities are safe.”
“Will you commit to not using the law?” protesters interrupted. “Will you join us in fighting to repeal this racist and regressive law?”
“I would be happy if the legislature repealed it,” Shapiro said.
“Is that a yes?” protesters asked.
“Yes,” Shapiro said.
In a statement, Krasner spokesperson Jane Roh said it was important for Shapiro to make his commitment in writing. “Philadelphians deserve transparency and accountability from their elected leaders. Attorney General Shapiro must put an end to the confusion and fear he has caused to communities most hurt by mass incarceration by committing, in writing, to never exercising the powers given him by Act 58 without the express consent and cooperation of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office,” said Roh, referring to the amendment to HB 1614 that gave the attorney general jurisdiction to prosecute some Philadelphia gun crimes. “This episode also is revealing of Attorney General Shapiro’s considerable political clout among the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania General Assembly; therefore, it should be just as easy for him to ensure Act 58 is repealed.”
The protesters also called on Shapiro to formalize his promise to support a repeal. “Attorney General Shapiro: you verbally committed you wouldn’t use the power the legislature gave you, and to repeal that bill,” the activist groups Coalition for a Just DA and Reclaim Philadelphia said in a statement following the panel. “Now it’s time to put those commitments in writing to DA Krasner, and to the people of Philadelphia.”
At a panel earlier on Friday, Krasner said HB 1614 was “straight up an effort at making Philadelphia a colony,” characterizing its passage as an attempt by the attorney general’s office to undermine his work.
The law includes a sunset clause that nullifies it in two years, just after the end of Krasner’s first term, raising suspicions that the provision was put in place specifically to target Krasner and the reformist spirit he’s brought to the Philadelphia district attorney’s office.
The activists voiced strong support for the district attorney’s policies. “I am definitely for Larry Krasner,” Marthea Brown, an organizer with CADBI, said, addressing Shapiro. “Our community worked hard to elect Larry Krasner. And finally we have someone in power who believes in justice. Who believes in reviewing cases. Who believes in treating people fair. We won’t let you take that away from us. This is about the people, not the power.”
“Unfortunately, some people in our state legislature and the Trump-endorsing Fraternal Order of Police don’t share our vision.”
Nikki Grant, an attorney and organizer with the Amistad Law Project, slammed the state legislature for pushing right-wing policies that are out of step with Philadelphia. “Mr. Shapiro, in the majority-black city of Philadelphia, we have a vision where we the people define how we want to keep our communities safe. We voted for that vision. Unfortunately, some people in our state legislature and the Trump-endorsing Fraternal Order of Police don’t share our vision. They have a Jeff Sessions-style vision of politics that literally undermines the will of black voters,” she said. “We want to know you will refuse to use the recently passed law that takes sovereignty over prosecutions away from the democratically elected district attorney of Philadelphia.”
As Shapiro began to speak, chants of “yes or no” broke out across the room.
Ellison stepped in to defend Shapiro, asking protesters to give him a chance to respond. “You guys have asked some fair questions, but a fair question deserves a fair answer,” he said.
That drew groans and yells from some in the crowd, including Saleem Holbrook, who stood on the side of the room, saying, “Come on, Keith.” Holbrook, who spoke on a panel alongside Krasner earlier in the day, was released from prison after being sentenced to life without parole when he was 18 years old, for a crime committed when he was 16. He is now an activist with the Abolitionist Law Center, which advocates for abolishing class- and race-based mass incarceration in the United States.
Shapiro’s office responded to backlash against the bill earlier this week by saying they had supported statewide concurrent jurisdiction to allow the attorney general to help prosecute firearms violations across the state, and not just in Philadelphia.
The amendment that limited concurrent jurisdiction to Philadelphia County was added to HB 1614 on the House floor by Republican Rep. Martina White, who is a member of the Philadelphia delegation. Both she and Shapiro have close ties to the city’s Fraternal Order of Police lodge, which has aggressively opposed Krasner’s reformist agenda, even going so far as to put up billboards calling for a new district attorney in the city. Several Democratic lawmakers later said they didn’t realize what was in the bill, essentially admitting that they did not, in fact, read or totally understand it before voting on it.
“Attorney General Shapiro, I want to say thank you for listening to what we have to say and for committing to support local Philadelphians in keeping our communities safe,” Reclaim Philadelphia organizer Rick Krajewski said, after Shapiro said he would support a repeal. “And we will be watching to make sure that you actually follow through on the commitments that you just made.”
“This kind of dialogue is important,” Shapiro replied. “But let’s not lose sight of the fact that we have people dying in this city at an alarming rate,” he said.
“We know,” protesters replied. “We live here.”
Update: July 12, 2019, 4:39 p.m. ET
This piece was updated to include statements from Larry Krasner’s office and the activist groups Coalition for a Just DA and Reclaim Philadelphia that were received after publication. It has also been updated to include the name of one of the protesters who confronted Josh Shapiro.