On election night earlier this week, Larry Krasner addressed his supporters and promptly laid out the goals of his forthcoming administration. “This is a mandate for a movement that is loudly telling government what it wants,” he said to a crowd of cheering supporters. ”And what it wants is criminal justice reform in ways that require transformational change within the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office.”
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He then went on to define that change, and it was consistent with what he’d run on: ending the death penalty, mass incarceration, cash bail, civil forfeiture, and resisting Trump’s immigration agenda.
Notice anything missing? That’s right, on the night that the career civil rights and defense attorney was elected to become the city’s top law enforcement officer, there was no mention of making Philadelphia safer—at a time when, as of yesterday, our homicide rate is up 15 percent over last year.
As I wrote earlier this week, it’s not that Krasner’s reforms are unwarranted. It’s just that we very likely have the makings of a murder epidemic on our hands and our new District Attorney is not offering up ideas to make taxpayers feel safer when they find themselves alone on a deserted side street at midnight. Politically, it seems tone-deaf for a new District Attorney to use harsher rhetoric against the office he’s about to lead (“a cover-up organization”) than those who break the law on our streets.
But, don’t worry. Someone is looking to keep our streets safe, even as Larry Krasner embarks on enacting transformational change within his new office. Thank God we have Common Pleas Judge Genece Brinkley protecting Philadelphia from the scourge that is Meek Mill.
In case you missed it, Brinkley is the judge who—surprising the defense and prosecution, which wasn’t seeking jail time—sentenced the rapper to two to four years in prison for violating his probation from a 2008 drugs and gun case.
This isn’t a new thing; Brinkley has been weird when it comes to Mill for years. She showed up at Broad Street Ministries, where Mill was supposed to be feeding the homeless, and excoriated him for folding T-shirts instead. She urged him to take “etiquette classes.” His lawyer claims she asked him to name drop her in one of his songs.
Let’s be clear: Brinkley confuses justice with control. When she says to Mill, after her bizarre visit to Broad Street Ministries, “It was only when you realized that I came there to check on you that you decided to serve meals,” that’s all about her ego. Or how about this: “I gave you break after break, and you basically just thumbed your nose at this court,” she told Mill. When she sentenced him to state prison, she said: “Then I’ll be done with you.”
Doesn’t exactly sound like the dispassionate application of justice, or an attempt to rid civil society of a menace, does it? Seems pretty personal to me. But there are bigger issues here that ought to transcend Meek Mill.
What Krasner and Brinkley have in common is a skewed sense of their most sacred and highest calling: Keeping our city safe.
If the defendant in this case weren’t a celebrity, how would we even know that Judge Brinkley isn’t really doing the job taxpayers pay her to? The fact is, the Meek Mill case should serve as a window into a system that Krasner has correctly identified as in need of reform. Wildly over-incarcerated Pennsylvania has the nation’s second highest number of people under the parole or probation system—roughly three times the size of the incarcerated population. How many thousands of them are getting resentenced to prison time like Mill not out of a concern for public safety, but because some judge felt dissed (not unlike one of the characters in, uh, a Meek Mill rap)?
In a report released in August by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the answer would seem to be plenty. In Less Is More: How Reducing Probation Populations Can Improve Outcomes, the authors argue that there is a direct link between the probation and parole system, on the one hand, and mass-incarceration, on the other.
“The footprint of probation and parole, which now supervises more than twice as many people as are in all of America’s prisons and jails,” writes Harvard’s Vincent Schiraldi, New York City’s former Probation Commissioner, “must be cut in half so community corrections can focus its resources on helping those most in need to turn their lives around.” The authors argue that probation has not served as an alternative to incarceration so much as a driver of it.
Earlier this year, Georgia passed bipartisan probation reform, which shortened sentences and reduced caseloads. In Michigan, Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed a bill that minimizes punishments for “technical violations” of probation—you know, like folding T-shirts for the homeless when you’re supposed to be feeding them. Bipartisan coalitions have led other states to shorten probation terms and give courts the power to end them altogether.
Why are Republicans and Democrats rallying around such reforms? Because they see them as inextricably linked to actually keeping their constituents safer. Think about the time our fearless Judge Brinkley spent on the Meek Mill case, which threatened precisely no one other than the judge’s own fragile ego.
The Meek Mill case should serve as a window into a system that Krasner has correctly identified as in need of reform. Wildly over-incarcerated Pennsylvania has the nation’s second highest number of people under the parole or probation system—roughly three times the size of the incarcerated population.
Which gets us back to Krasner. What Krasner and Brinkley have in common is a skewed sense of their most sacred and highest calling: Keeping our city safe. Both ought to be sentenced to read Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, Jill Leovy’s 2015 narrative about crime in Watts, Long Angeles. It is Leovy’s contention that, yes, as Krasner would have us believe, the criminal justice system in many of our cities is “oppressive”—but it’s also “inadequate.” That is to say, as she amply documents: Through tactics like stop-and-frisk, police are often an occupying force that focuses on control rather than—and this is key—being an innovative investigative force that actually solves murders.
In Philadelphia, the city’s homicide clearance rate last year dropped to its lowest in 15 years, the third consecutive year it has decreased. Of last year’s 277 murders, the clearance rate was just 45.4 percent. “Where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death,” Leovy writes, “homicide becomes endemic.”
So here we are, standing among body bags and chalk outlines, while our incoming top law enforcement officer vilifies the office he is now charged to lead and seems preoccupied with his litany of reforms…and while a judge courageously protects us from a man whose attitude offended her.
In reaction to both, I can’t stop picturing the average Philadelphian, someone who pays taxes, who has a job and a mortgage, watching Krasner’s highfalutin speechifying and Brinkley’s hysterical reaction to a defendant who represents no threat to society, and saying to both: “Yo! It’s not always about you! What about me?”Header Photo: Pixabay