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Pennsylvania’s Top Cop Says He Supports Criminal Justice Reform. His Record Suggests Otherwise.

When it comes to criminal justice, advocates say, Attorney General Josh Shapiro seems intent on maintaining the status quo.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh ShapiroPhoto illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

On July 9, 2018, a Pennsylvania State Police trooper and State Game Commission officer in Berks County accidentally ran over Gregory Longenecker with a bulldozer and killed him.

Longenecker and another man were accused of growing marijuana on state game land in Penn Township in Berks County. When the Game Commission officer and Bernville Police Chief found them, Longenecker fled into an area that was covered in heavy brush. The other man was quickly arrested.

The State Police flew a helicopter over the area but lost track of Longenecker as he hid in the brush. Police commandeered a bulldozer and began clearing the area, ultimately running Longenecker over.

A little more than a month later, Berks County District Attorney John Adams cleared the officers of any wrongdoing, saying that an investigation determined that Longenecker crawled under the bulldozer when it came to a brief stop during the search.

Adams wrote in a public statement that it was “unfortunate” that Longenecker died but that he supported the actions of the State Police.

“Their efforts were reasonable and conducted in a safe manner,” Adams wrote.

Longenecker’s family disagrees. In March, his uncle filed a federal civil lawsuit against the State Police, the State Game Commission, and several other actors involved in Longenecker’s death. That lawsuit is still pending, but it is being defended by the office of Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, which sought to have the suit dismissed.

By law, the attorney general’s office is the first department tapped to defend state agencies, like the State Police, from civil suits. “Under Pennsylvania law, the decision of whether a state employee is entitled to representation and indemnification is made by the employing agency, not the Attorney General,” Jacklin Rhoads, a spokesperson for Shapiro, told The Appeal in a written statement. 

But critics say that does not mean Shapiro has to take these cases. Shapiro can request the state office of general counsel handle any case he chooses not to defend, something critics see as the ethical thing to do.

“The attorney general is the top prosecutor and law enforcement is just that, law enforcement,” Patrick Nightingale, a former prosecutor in Allegheny County and a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, told The Appeal. “There is perhaps a conflict of interest or a vested interest in the top prosecutor protecting his agents.”

Shapiro’s office also defended the State Police against Jada Noone, a Black woman who filed suit in 2018 alleging that State Police arrested her despite knowing the suspect they were looking for was white, causing her to be held in the Luzerne County jail for more than two weeks. In defending that suit, Shapiro’s office went to the extreme of demanding proof that Noone was Black.

Advocates say that reflexively defending the police is just one of several ways in which Shapiro is disappointing the progressives who helped elect him in 2016 after the previous attorney general, Kathleen Kane, was charged, convicted, and incarcerated for leaking grand jury information to the media.

During his campaign, Shapiro espoused progressive ideals like standing up to Wall Street and protecting the rights of the LGBTQ community; he has frequently cast himself as a bulwark against President Trump.

But since then, critics say, he has embraced a tough-on-crime image that contrasts sharply with the progressive politics of Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, the state’s most prominent prosecutor. Shapiro is endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, they note, an organization that accused Krasner of having “great disdain for law enforcement.”  

“[Josh Shapiro] is not a true progressive,” Nikki Grant, an attorney and policy lead at Amistad Law Project, which represents people in prisons across the state and advocates for policy change, told The Appeal. “I think that is a term that people like to take up because of people like Krasner … but his actions do not match the meaning of the word.”

Drug warrior

Shapiro’s response to Pennsylvania’s opioid crisis is a case in point, advocates say. 

Though he has spearheaded a police-assisted diversion program meant to keep people suffering from substance use disorder out of the criminal legal system, Shapiro has also been a vocal proponent of the use of Pennsylvania’s drug delivery resulting in death statute, which punishes a person with up to 40 years in state prison for providing drugs to someone who overdoses and dies. 

“If you’re peddling this poison in our communities and someone dies from it, we’re going to charge you to the full extent of the law,” Shapiro said in a meeting with reporters in 2017.

Shapiro went on to say that he tries to be responsible in using the charge and only goes after high-level dealers. But advocates say such charges, in use across the state, make people less likely to call for help in the case of an overdose.

“If we want to stop trying to arrest our way out of the war on drugs or the overdose crisis, we must re-evaluate our stance on [current drug laws] and how we support people with substance use disorder,” Devin Reaves, co-founder and executive director of the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition, told The Appeal. “We’re seeing families where somebody experiences a medical emergency and instead of getting access to evidence-based care, they’re thrown in jail.”

Rhoads said Shapiro’s office has filed 19 cases of drug delivery resulting in death since taking office in 2017 and that the office factors in public safety when deciding to bring those charges.

“Our office’s philosophy is not to prosecute people suffering from addiction themselves but rather those dealers or doctors preying upon others suffering from substance use disorder,” her statement read.

Though Shapiro’s plan to address the problem includes providing access to harm-reduction drugs like Naloxone and offering access to substance use treatment, he has been vocally opposed to some local harm-reduction efforts.

In 2017, Larry Krasner, then a candidate for Philadelphia district attorney, announced he would support a city-authorized supervised consumption site—a facility for people to safely use drugs with testing and supervision from medical personnel.

Supervised consumption sites have been shown to prevent overdose deaths, reduce the spread of disease, and provide an access point for people to receive substance treatment, while not causing a rise in crime.

City officials have been working with a local nonprofit run by former Governor Ed Rendell, on opening the site. The facility has received the support of Mayor Jim Kenney, while the Department of Justice is suing the nonprofit, Safehouse, to prevent the opening.

Rather than support the plan in the face of such opposition, Shapiro has spoken out against it. In 2017, Shapiro said his view was that “there is no safe way to inject heroin, fentanyl or carfentanil into your system.” People with substance use disorder need “a gateway to treatment,” he said. 

But Reaves said he and other supporters of safe injection sites also support treatment. “As a drug policy professional, it doesn’t add up to me when we have elected officials who don’t support supervised injection facilities, but do support filing charges and arresting people on drug delivery resulting in death charges when supervised injection facilities could alleviate that problem,” he said.

Resisting reform

Shapiro’s tough-on-crime approach crops up elsewhere as well.

One of his responsibilities is to sit on the Board of Pardons and weigh in on whether people should receive clemency.

In Pennsylvania, a single dissenting vote from any person on the five-member board is enough to deny commutation of a life sentence, In some cases, Shapiro has been the lone vote against freeing prisoners from death behind bars. In 2017 and 2018, a total of nine out of 11 requests for commutation from life sentences were denied.

In December 2017, Shapiro was the lone vote against commuting the life sentence of William Smith, a then 76-year-old man convicted in 1968 of murder under Pennsylvania’s felony-murder rule. During a robbery of a check-cashing facility in Philadelphia, Smith’s accomplice shot and killed the store’s owner.

Smith had been granted a recommendation of commutation by the Board of Pardons in 1992, but Governor Robert Casey never signed off.

Shapiro’s “no” vote to Smith’s commutation drew an outcry from Smith’s family and community leaders and in May 2018, Shapiro relented and approved the commutation. 

During the same meeting in December 2017, Shapiro was also the dissenting vote against recommending commutation of a life sentence for Edward Printup, who killed his abusive stepfather in 1980 at age 19 in an effort, he said, to prevent another beating. Printup is one of more than 5,400 people essentially sentenced to die in prison in Pennsylvania. 

Rhoads said Shapiro believes in second chances and noted that he created the Pennsylvania Reentry Council to help people leaving prison reintegrate into society. She said decisions were made case-by-case and that Shapiro weighs a host of factors when determining whether to recommend clemency, including public safety, victim statements, and the person’s behavior while incarcerated.

But Celeste Trusty, Pennsylvania state policy director for FAMM, told The Appeal she was disappointed in the state’s refusal to grant more commutations. “Pennsylvania has a moral and fiscal obligation to restore its once robust clemency process to provide second-chance opportunities for the many people who have matured and rehabilitated during their time in prison,” she said, “and who do not pose a public safety risk.”

Shapiro’s tough edge is also evident in his stance on the death penalty. Despite a wave of momentum against it, Shapiro said on the campaign trail that he supports the death penalty for “the most heinous of crimes.” Krasner, by contrast, strongly opposes it. He has stopped defending many appeals of death penalty sentences in Philadelphia and argued in a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court brief that the punishment could not “survive the state Constitution’s ban on cruel punishments.”

Shapiro’s office opposed the challenge and contended that the issue was a matter of policy best left up to the legislature to decide.

Last month, advocates criticized Shapiro for his seeming support of a bill quietly passed by the state legislature in June that allowed his office to prosecute certain gun cases without first conferring with Krasner, which some advocates saw as an effort to strip Krasner of power. When controversy erupted over the bill’s passage, Shapiro denied any involvement and said he would support its repeal. 

Shapiro is up for re-election in 2020 and some advocates hope he’ll face a challenge from the left. 

“I think it would be ideal if we had someone else” in the attorney general’s office, Grant said. “Someone who is a true progressive.”