Anarchy is no cure for coronavirus — or injustice

Anarchy is no cure for coronavirus — or injustice
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As small businesses face bankruptcy across the nation, the few storefronts operating in Philadelphia face a different kind of threat. Disturbing video from ABC 6 news shows groups of shoplifters brazenly sauntering into stores, filling backpacks with whatever they wanted, and walking out.

Some even turned to lecture store owners about the “new normal” — that shoplifting is allowed now because of the coronavirus. “They're actually telling us the law, that they're not gonna get locked up,” says vendor Sukhvir Thinb. 

The worst part? The criminals are right — and it’s a consequence of a flawed and counter-productive version of criminal justice reform espoused by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.

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As a defense lawyer, Krasner captured headlines by suing the Philadelphia police — 75 times. Since becoming DA, Krasner has refused to prosecute certain gun crimes, and his brazen attacks on police have demoralized the Philadelphia Police Department. 

On March 17, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw announced via memo that law enforcement officers will no longer make arrests for drug trafficking, theft, vandalism, prostitution, and even mugging. Her decision was “strongly urged” by Krasner

The Outlaw Memo (as it’s officially titled) makes an exception for crimes that “pose a threat to public safety.” Don’t all such crimes pose a threat to public safety? Or is being mugged just part and parcel of living in a big city? 

The stated reason for this anarchy is that jails are “too full” during the coronavirus threat. Of course, this implies that offenders can purposefully overload the justice system, and cops can’t do anything about it. 

Krasner’s office has responded to the shoplifting videos by attempting to redefine the crime. “A mob entering a business sounds like more than just shoplifting; it sounds terroristic. If police are making arrests in cases like that, our office would charge appropriately,” said the DA’s spokeswoman. By redefining the offense as terrorism, the DA’s office is trying to avoid blame for this new crime wave.

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Sadly, it appears police leadership has been brought to heel by Outlaw and Krasner. The Fraternal Order of Police issued an official statement of support, followed by an explanation from FOP Lodge 5 president John McNesby: “The directive was released to keep officers safe during this public health crisis.” 

The rank-and-file cops I know would never go along with this. They became law enforcement officers because they care about keeping our city safe no matter the threat.

But as a devastating crime wave sweeps across the poorest big city in America, the invisible victims of these false “criminal justice reforms” are Philadelphia’s most vulnerable. I’m not just talking about 7-Eleven owners such as Vincent Emmanuel, who says, “It’s a lawless city; it’s the Wild West. That’s what’s happening here.” His plea for help has gone unanswered.

I’m talking about prisoners and low-level offenders who benefit from legitimate criminal justice reform. Pennsylvania’s bipartisan Justice Reinvestment Initiative 2 improves sentencing and parole for nonviolent offenders and reinvests associated savings to reduce recidivism. This reform came on the heels of the First Step Act of 2018, which has been called the most significant federal criminal justice reform in a generation. But the momentum for further prison reforms that truly prioritize public safety while treating inmates humanely is threatened by the recklessness and bad optics of Krasner and his gang.

To improve our justice system, the public must have confidence that compassionate reform results in safer communities. That can be achieved only if our leaders can be trusted to protect life, liberty and property. When leaders such as Krasner adopt the mantle of reform while undermining public safety, trust is lost — as is the opportunity for progress. 

No one wants “the Wild West” as their future. Serious criminal justice reform advocates should stop treating radical district attorneys such as Krasner as champions of their cause. Instead, they should focus on research-driven policies with proven results, rather than handpicking which laws to enforce.

Jennifer Stefano is vice president and chief innovation officer for the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free market think tank. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferStefano.