Pennsylvania: Spotlight on the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner announced in November that he was leaving the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA), an organization that brings together the state’s prosecutors and assistant prosecutors and that lobbies in their name in the state capital.
Krasner, who has implemented ambitious reforms since taking office in January, explained his departure by denouncing the policies advocated by the PDAA as regressive. “They have been claiming that Philadelphia supports this absolute nonsense, this throwback set of policies, and we do not,” he said in a speech. “The [PDAA] will not claim legitimacy of its most important criminal justice jurisdiction and try to take us back 40 years.”
As a growing number of reformers take office as prosecutors, they have increased awareness of the wide range of policies that DAs can enact and have blurred expectations that there is such a thing as the prosecutors’ side in criminal justice debates. But the PDAA’s public role and rhetoric don’t bear significant traces of these changes.
What policies has the PDAA supported?
The PDAA plays a major lobbying role in Harrisburg, the state capital, advocating for or against legislation and policy changes that touch on law enforcement practices. “I have found that Democrats and Republicans listen to them very closely,” said Elizabeth Rosol, the legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “There is an ever-present concern about not wanting to rankle the DA’s association.”
The association took a public position on 16 bills and two specific policy debates in 2017 and 2018, based on my review of all press releases that it issued during those two years.
It championed a series of measures to make the law more punitive or criminalize a new action. These include reinstating mandatory minimum sentences, reinstating requirements that people convicted of sexual offenses sign up on a registry, increasing the gravity of offenses that involve fentanyl, and making it a misdemeanor to record courtroom proceedings. The PDAA typically presents such measures as essential to public safety. “Mandatory minimum sentences work to improve public safety: they help to keep the most dangerous offenders off our street,” the PDAA writes in one press release.
Conversely, it objected to bills that facilitated post-conviction relief and DNA testing, denounced a report critical of the death penalty, and raised concerns about proposed prison closures. It has also issued more generalized warnings about the goals of criminal justice reformers and about viewing the criminal justice system as structurally flawed. “We cannot… let one individual under very unique circumstances indict an entire system,” the group wrote in response to a press conference held by Governor Tom Wolf and the rapper Meek Mill after the latter’s release. “We caution against the wholesale elimination of appropriate consequences and accountability in the criminal justice system cloaked in the concept of reform.”
Who does the PDAA speak for?
In the media, PDAA pronouncements often get reified as the perspective of law enforcement writ large, as the view that reflects the experience of striving for safety and caring for victims.
Take a September article in the Morning Call about a report released by the Abolitionist Law Center against Pennsylvania’s use of life without parole sentences. The author turned to the PDAA for a perspective rebutting the study, and quotes its executive director as saying that murder “warrants the most severe sentence.” The article characterizes the pushback as follows: “[The report’s] conclusions were panned by law enforcement, which has long maintained that life without parole fulfills a promise made to the families of countless murder victims.” But this characterization is contradicted by the reforms that Krasner was concurrently putting in place in Philadelphia to change the approach of his DA’s office to homicide cases and minimize life sentences.
“Because they’re speaking as the association, my strong belief is that legislators often assume that it’s all DAs saying that to them—and that matters,” said Rosol. “Some of their power derives from the assumption that their positions are held uniformly and unanimously by all district attorneys who remain in the association, but I don’t know if that’s true.”
Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele, the legislative chairperson of the PDAA, told me in an email through a spokesperson for the organization that “legislative and policy issues are discussed and decided upon through the PDAA’s Executive Committee.” The committee is a subset of the state’s district attorneys. “All of Pennsylvania’s 67 district attorneys are invited to participate in statewide business meetings twice each year,” Steele added. “These discussions help inform the Executive Committee’s decisions.”
When asked whether a PDAA statement is meant to reflect the view of all DAs, Steele said that “positions taken by the PDAA reflect the views of the Association. As with other associations, District Attorneys are free to disagree with such positions.”
This nuance can get lost in press coverage, as mentioned above, as well as in some PDAA pronouncements. In 2017, for instance, Bucks County District Attorney John Adams (who was then the PDAA president) delivered a testimony on behalf of the PDAA position calling for more severe sentences for fentanyl offenses. “We are in a crisis,” Adams said. “Pennsylvania’s district attorneys ask that you help us respond to it.” In another testimony, Cumberland County District Attorney and PDAA communications chairperson Dave Freed also spoke on behalf of his peers. “As prosecutors, our experience is that sex offender registries work and represent good policy,” he said. And in a press release calling for mandatory minimums to be reinstated, the association wrote that “law enforcement and prosecutors in Pennsylvania have seen a difference on the streets and in the courtroom without [longer sentences].”
Turahn Jenkins, who is challenging Stephen Zappala in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) in 2019, told the Appeal: Political Report that if he wins he may emulate Krasner and leave the PDAA.
“The views and policies of the [PDAA] are partly responsible for many of the issues that plague our criminal justice system; their desire to restore mandatory minimum sentences & their failure to adopt innovative approaches to case dispositions being the most problematic,” Jenkins said in a statement emailed by a spokesperson. “Once elected, I will not seek inclusion in the PDAA unless the organization demonstrates a willingness to reconsider their policy positions and the negative impact they have on the citizens of the Commonwealth.”
You can find a standalone version of this story here.