The bullets that pierced J.J.’s body on a Philadelphia sidewalk didn’t kill him, but the near-death attack in 2013 convinced him that he needed to carry a gun at all times. After recovering from being shot in the stomach, hip, and leg, he did just that until June 2020 — when police stopped him near a shooting scene.

Initially, the police thought J.J. was the shooter, but even after clearing him, they placed him under arrest because they found he didn’t have a license for his Smith & Wesson pistol. He had carried the firearm for a decade, while his shooter remained at large.

At the time, J.J., who asked that his full name not be used because he does not want his arrest to harm future employment prospects, didn’t know that Philadelphians face harsher consequences for carrying a gun without a license than other Pennsylvanians do. Under Pennsylvania law, section 6106, those arrested for carrying a gun without a license face a misdemeanor. But in Philadelphia, those arrested for the same crime face an additional charge — section 6108 — which bumps the offense up to a felony. J.J. was among the 1,133 Philadelphians who were hit with both charges that year.

Instead of being sentenced to jail or probation living with a criminal record, J.J., a father of six who had no prior convictions, was given a chance to clear his name. He got that opportunity through a program that District Attorney Larry Krasner created in 2021 to provide people charged with illegal possession and who have no prior convictions an alternative to prison. A defendant is ineligible if they are accused of brandishing their gun or attempting to use it to commit another crime. Similar programs have been recently launched in Minneapolis and Brooklyn, New York.

Krasner said he created the program because he thinks the Philadelphia-specific law has racial undertones, and it treats people like J.J. unfairly. Krasner points to the fact that while Black people comprise about 44 percent of Philadelphia’s population, they are 84 percent of those arrested for illegal gun possession. “It’s a very targeted effort to make conduct across the county line in Montgomery County or Bucks [County] a misdemeanor, but to make the same conduct in the city of Philadelphia a felony,” Krasner said. “It is deeply and deliberately racist and procarceral and always has been.”

Another motivating factor for creating the program, Krasner said, is that Philadelphia’s rate of charging people with illegal gun possession is four times higher than the rest of the state’s; he said that disparity stems from more aggressive policing in response to the city’s gun violence crisis, which has left more than 1,840 dead and 6,800 injured since 2020. In Philadelphia, the number of people charged with carrying a firearm without a license increased 42 percent from 2019 to 2022, while arrests for all other offenses declined 32 percent. 

What Diversion Looks Like

To join the program, defense attorneys refer their clients to the District Attorney’s Office, which then reviews defendants’ prior law enforcement contacts. Gang affiliations, adult criminal convictions, and juvenile felony adjudications disqualify someone from participating. The wait time for being accepted into the program ranges from 12 to 18 months. Before they join, defendants must give up any guns they’ve purchased.

Once they’re in, participants are assigned social workers who provide counseling, help obtaining job training and educational opportunities, and assistance getting driver’s licenses and other forms of identification. Participants also meet weekly in small groups to discuss common and personal challenges, while every six to eight weeks they have virtual hearings before their supervising judges to discuss their successes and setbacks.

Krasner said that, based on a recidivism analysis of early graduates, he believes the program is already making the city safer. The study, he said, found that of 39 participants who graduated at least a year ago, just two, or 5.1 percent, had been rearrested, compared to a 21 percent rearrest rate for other defendants convicted of illegal gun possession.

 J.J., 35, said he was too immature to seek a gun license when he first started carrying, but plans to do so when his arrest is expunged. He was admitted into the program last summer and graduated February 1. While it helped him gain self confidence and learn how to deal with conflict, he said he can still understand why many young Black men walk the streets of Philadelphia armed for self-protection.

 “Philadelphia is harsh, you know – Grand Theft Auto,” said J.J., who works as a home healthcare aide. “You could just be waiting at the bus stop and somebody could be having a bad day and take it out on you because you looked at him wrong, or because you have some nice sneakers on. There’s just so much hatred that if you don’t have one, something is bound to happen.”

Staffers in the DA’s Office say the program aims to help people like J.J. “Our question was: We clearly have an at-risk population. Mostly young, mostly poor, mostly people of color,” said Dana Bazelon, policy director for the DA’s Office. “Is there a way to – instead of throwing them into the criminal justice system and giving them a felony conviction – divert them and hopefully give them some services that help them along the way and leave them a little better off than when we found them?”

The Politics of Prison Alternatives

Since taking office in 2018, Krasner has garnered many high-profile critics who’ve labeled the former defense attorney soft on crime. But, notably, they have not criticized this program. The Trace asked for comment but received no responses from the Philadelphia Police Department, Philadelphia City Council President Kenyatta Johnson, and the spokesperson for the Republican caucus of the state House of Representatives – which in 2022 attempted to impeach Krasner. The Fraternal Order of Police, perhaps Krasner’s most frequent critic, also had no comment, said a spokesman for the union that represents city cops.

Roosevelt Poplar, the union’s first Black president, has personal experience with the issue. Online court records indicate that his son, Cordell, 20, was arrested in January of last year and charged with illegal possession of a gun when a police officer spotted a Glock .40 caliber handgun in his car during a traffic stop. A law enforcement source confirmed that Cordell Poplar is currently in the Alternative Felony Disposition program.

Andre Boyer, a former city cop who owns a private protection agency, said that while he believes in second chances, he is troubled that Krasner is giving them to people caught carrying guns amid a gun-violence crisis. Since those admitted into the program had the ability to get gun licenses before they were arrested, Boyer said, they chose to break the law. 

Instead of offering this program, Boyer said Krasner should use his office to educate people about how to lawfully arm themselves.

“On his door it says, ‘prosecutor.’ It doesn’t say, ‘social worker.’ The numbers [of Blacks being arrested] are what they are,” said Boyer, who is Black. “The justice system should be fair across the board.” He said his years as a police officer leads him to believe that Krasner is enabling the illegal gun market by not prosecuting those who’ve bought their guns that way. 

Krasner, however, said the low rearrest numbers for those who’ve completed the program is proof that it is working. 

“They have a level of assistance and supervision that is so much more than what county parole and probation will supply you if you’re convicted. And they’re also coming out without a conviction which can disqualify you from, like, 800 different categories of jobs,” Krasner said. The goal, he added, is to “steer them in a law-abiding direction.”

 J.J. said he is grateful that his lawyer told him about the program and that he completed it. “I got a 17-year-old, two that’s 16, one that’s 8, 6, and 5,” he said. “I got too many people that’s relying on me, looking up to me. So I don’t have time to hang around people who don’t have nothing to live for. Me getting shot, and me getting arrested, that was a wakeup call.”