Larry Krasner ran as arguably the most progressive District Attorney candidate in the country. In May, he sent shockwaves throughout the Pennsylvania political establishment after winning the Philadelphia Democratic primary. And last night he defeated his Republic opponent Beth Grossman by more than 40 points in the general election to become Philly’s next DA — part of a broader wave of progressives elected to office.
In These Times spoke to Krasner about the significance of his campaign for local and national politics.
Your campaign website states, “The culture of the Philadelphia DA’s office must change” What exactly must change?
This is a culture that has been focused on trying to bring as many cases against as many defendants as possible, which basically means poor people, as possible. We have one public school after another closing in Philadelphia but we’ve got oh so many prison cells. The reality is that good public education prevents crime. Good drug treatment prevents crime. Good job training prevents crime. Good economic development and availability of jobs, prevents crime. But building more and more jail cells causes the cycle of poverty, it causes crime
How do you understand the relationship between street violence and the institutionalized violence of poverty?
Violence is defined narrowly in terms of people getting hurt on the street by being robbed, by being shot. It is also defined broadly in terms of the trauma that people suffer when they are poor, when they have no hope, etc. How is it related? We know that people who have been traumatized, people who have been neglected, people who have moved 50 times during their childhood because no one could ever afford the rent, tend to end up in jail. We have accepted a prevention model in public health a long time ago and we need to be willing to make that small shift and accept that in the realm of criminal justice.
You sued the Philadelphia Police Department 75 times. As District Attorney how will you hold police accountable?
Number one, you could stop treating them as if they are entitled to different treatment. It’s really not that complicated to treat rich people and poor people and famous people and unfamous people and people who wear uniforms and people who don’t the same.
How will your office maintain Philadelphia as a sanctuary city?
Local law enforcement all over the country is not going to do Donald Trump’s bidding. Having said that there are limits to what local law enforcement can do. One of the unfortunate side effects of the Obama Administration’s efforts is we now have a finger print system where at the moment of arrest fingerprints go directly from the police who take the prints to ICE. And ICE has a database of who has documentation to be here and who does not. So, I don’t want to suggest that it necessarily means that ICE won’t be able to deport people, they will. They will just be deporting people according to their own resources rather than counting on local officials.
As a civil right attorney, you defended Occupy and Black Lives Matter activists. What do you see is the relationship between protests and law enforcement?
Every single person who sits on a jury who is not a white man got there because of protests. Every single police officer or member of law enforcement or firefighter who’s not a white man, got there because of protests. There’s a direct connection between the people that are enforcing the law and the people who are in public office passing laws and protests. Political opportunists are not so good at politics. Activists and organizers, it turns out are a lot better at politics. That’s what I saw in this campaign and what we saw with the Bernie Sanders campaign and maybe even to some extent with the Trump campaign. We are going to see more protests, not less, during the Trump administration. And we should. We are also going to see law enforcement able to draw a connection between their best interests and the best interests of protesting free speech.
How will the DA’s office fight to protect the environment and the health of our children?
So obviously you have a president whose goal is the elimination of the EPA and that means there’s a lot of people in the federal government who have dedicated their careers to fighting pollution and really don’t want to be there anymore. You have a lot of Assistant United States Attorneys at the federal level who used to do civil or criminal work in relation to pollution who are going to be shut down. That means that it will be incumbent upon local prosecutors and local law enforcement officers to pick this up in the same way that they’re going to have to pick up white collar crime, which the president is not going to prosecute either, in my opinion.
A lot of the normal functions of federal government are going to fall to local government and it will be a struggle because local prosecutors are not ordinarily equipped to do these things. But I’m also confident that a lot of those people who work on these issues within the federal government or work in the non-profit community are going to migrate to local district attorney’s offices to do the same kind of work at the local level.
Can you talk a bit about the push to treat drugs as a public health issue and the role of safe injection sites?
We have a big pharma-generated crisis unlike any I remember in my lifetime. We have seen a 400 percent increase in the availability of pills produced by American pharmaceutical companies that are opiates and opioids, and that almost inevitably lead to people who become addicted to them to heroin and fentanyl.
And just as we’ve had a four-fold increase in pills we have had more or less a four-fold increase in overdoses from opiates, opioids and heroin. We have to look at what’s really causing this crisis, which is big pharma. They need to stop and we need to hold them accountable. Some people in these companies might need to go to jail and certainly they might need to lose a lot of their profit because that’s why they’re doing this.
But we also have to deal with the reality that the current level of addiction is absurd. We have to do whatever we can not only to stop more people from starting but to try to rehabilitate people who are already addicted and to prevent some of the other harms that come from this behavior. That includes things like dirty needles causing the spread of HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and other diseases. And there’s the violence that goes along with heroin trade and the sale of pills on the street.
One solution is providing harm reduction: places where clean needles are available and where dirty needles are disposed. And perhaps most importantly, places where there is an evangelism of rehabilitation, where we can get people who are addicted into treatment so that they have a chance of reclaiming their lives. That’s what we have to do. It’s going to happen whether government does it or not.
What does your campaign mean nationally?
On the one hand, this campaign is nothing more than an extension and a continuation of similar campaigns all over the country, in Orlando, Chicago, Houston, Corpus Christi and other places. So I think what’s happening here is really just an extension of national trends. You have people on both the left and on the right, including the Koch brothers and Newt Gingrich, who agree that mass incarceration is a disaster, who agree that civil forfeiture is unacceptable. You have a consensus forming and it is pushing the election of progressive district attorneys across the country.
I think it’s fair to say that part of what’s going on is animated by the election of Trump because many people have seen it as a call to action. On the other hand, we do have something that’s a little bit different happening here and I think that’s very important. In this campaign, we made very clear that we weren’t going to pursue the death penalty. That was a position that every political operative thought was foolhardy and advised against. But it’s a position we took.
So I think our campaign is both an extension of a national movement but it’s an even more progressive candidacy that is supported in a different way by having broad grassroots support that comes from activists and organizers.
This is a strong signal. If this result is duplicated around the country, which I absolutely think it will be, you are going to see candidates that are more progressive and you’re going to see them winning up and down the slate.
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