The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office

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Nearly nine out of 10 people in Philadelphia’s jail system are people of color. The prosecutors who charge them with crimes? Quite the opposite.

White people make up a majority in the District Attorney’s office, and are vastly over-represented when compared to Philly’s overall population, according to a recent report from City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart. The report surveyed the city’s 4,600 “exempt” employees, who make up a small fraction of the 30,000-plus municipal workforce. They’re hired directly by the city, rather than though the more rigorous Civil Service system, and they include top brass positions like department leaders and cabinet heads.

Findings in the controller’s diversity report have caused turbulence for Mayor Jim Kenney, who is up for re-election next month. Less scrutiny has been given to the makeup of the DAO, where the imbalance has persisted even under reformist DA Larry Krasner, who came into office vowing to redress racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

As of June last year, 71 percent of Philly DAO at-will staffers are white. For senior staff at the top of the office food chain — i.e. those making more than $90,000 annually — that figure jumps to an even starker 82 percent white.

Krasner’s office says diversity figures have “improved slightly” since last year under purposefully revamped recruitment practices.

Recruitment has been a problem for prosecutors across the nation. Surveys have found that as high as 95 percent of elected prosecutors in the U.S. are white. Offices from San Diego to Queens have faced backlash for the racial and ethnic makeup of their legal teams.

Fixing the recruitment pipeline?

DA spokesperson Cameron Kline said most of at-will staffers making over $90,000 pre-dated Krasner’s tenure in office.

But the controller’s report found that even among new hires, whites were still disproportionate to non-whites relative to the city’s population. Of the 18 new hires making $90,000 or more, just a third were non-white.

Those numbers have “slightly improved” since the controller collected data for the recent report, Kline said. Moreover, he added, 64 entry-level attorneys will join the office this fall — over 40 percent of them ethnically or racially nonwhite, thanks to new recruitment strategies for seeking out diverse talent.

“Since DA Krasner took office, he and his leadership team began revamping the office’s recruiting program,” Kline told Billy Penn, “interviewing candidates from over 30 law schools across the country, including the top local law schools, Ivy League law schools, and five of the six recognized Historically Black Law Schools.”

Traditionally, many DAs across the country have limited recruitment to local law schools, which can contribute to the nationwide lack of diversity in prosecutors’ offices because of racial inequality in access to those schools, according to Lucy Lang, director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Another contributing factor cited by Lang is the reputation of prosecutors’ offices as adversarial in communities of color. “The best way to diversify the workforce is ultimately for prosecutors to do what they say they’re going to do,” she said, “and figure out ways to implement policies that are consistent with the changing values of their communities.”

The national attention on prosecutors like Krasner may be a boon for bringing in reform-minded young lawyers, but Lang also wonders if the widespread recognition of racism and other problems that are “structurally embedded in law enforcement” might be a turnoff.

“It cuts both ways,” Lang said.

Whites over-represented in other Philly offices

Federal data shows 88 percent of all U.S. lawyers are white. But the differences are more stark in the courtroom — for both the prosecution and defense. A request for information about the racial and ethnic makeup from the Defenders Association of Philadelphia went unreturned on Tuesday.

The controller’s diversity report, the first of its kind to examine the city’s small “exempt”/at-will workforce, showed imbalances across the board, beyond Krasner’s office.

Diversity is a pressing issue for Mayor Jim Kenney in his re-election bid. He has come under fire recently for remarks about his own administration’s difficulty recruiting people of color in the senior positions, echoing a familiar defense about how black candidates opt for better pay in the private sector.

Rhynhart did say that the Kenney’s administration own guidelines for diverse hiring are very thorough, and urged more municipal recruiters to consider using them as an example.

Philadelphia’s hiring practices for at-will employees have historically been marred by patronage and nepotism. Rhynhart said her office will do an annual survey of exempt employees to follow up.

“I want to make sure the departments are doing everything they can do to recruit and interview and hire the most diverse workforce they can,” Rhynhart said. “For next year, we’re going to look at how well department’s actually following [these best practices] — or if they’re just hiring people that they know already,” Rhynhart said.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...