Philly’s Progressive New DA Is Testing the Limits of Change from Within

Decarceration activists put Larry Krasner in office. Now they’re demanding that he empty the city’s jails.

Max M. Marin

Bernie Sanders, Larry Krasner, and Premal Dharia discuss decarceration in Philadelphia on May 5. (Photo by Léa Van Der Tak)

PHILADEL­PHIA— The truth is that activists do pol­i­tics bet­ter than politi­cians,” says Lar­ry Kras­ner. Bernie Sanders nods emphatically.

“They hold your feet to the fire,” Krasner says of the activists who rallied outside his office three days after the election with a punch-list of demands.

The two are meet­ing for the first time at a round­table on decarcer­a­tion host­ed by Jacobin magazine’s The Dig pod­cast, which also includ­ed Keean­ga-Yamaht­ta Tay­lor and Pre­mal Dharia. The Ver­mont sen­a­tor and the Philadel­phia dis­trict attor­ney both serve as bea­cons of what a left elec­toral chal­lenge can accom­plish, local­ly and nation­al­ly (and win or lose). After the pod­cast ends, Kras­ner extends a hand to Sanders and says, I did vote for you, by the way.” Since coast­ing to vic­to­ry last year on a wave of crim­i­nal jus­tice reform fer­vor, Kras­ner has quick­ly become one of the most-watched pros­e­cu­tors in the coun­try. He offers a test of whether a pro­gres­sive dis­trict attor­ney can fix a jus­tice sys­tem that has rav­aged com­mu­ni­ties of col­or for decades. Kras­ner now faces immense pres­sure from both the activist sup­port­ers who elect­ed him and the law-and-order pro­po­nents who oppose his reforms. 

Kras­ner makes for an unlike­ly DA. The St. Louis-born civ­il rights attor­ney has sued the Philadel­phia Police Depart­ment 75 times and pro­vid­ed pro bono coun­sel to Black Lives Mat­ter and Occu­py pro­test­ers. He once joked that he’d spent a career becom­ing com­plete­ly une­lec­table.” But the 57-year-old’s brazen résumé became his sales pitch on the 2017 cam­paign trail, where sup­port from black civ­il rights groups and promi­nent politi­cians lent him imme­di­ate cred­i­bil­i­ty. His Demo­c­ra­t­ic oppo­nents, rather than employ­ing the usu­al tough on crime” rhetoric, jock­eyed to win over the city’s sud­den­ly vol­u­ble pro­gres­sive base. With the sup­port of city­wide grass­roots coali­tions, nation­al pro­gres­sive groups and, to some con­tro­ver­sy, a $1.45 mil­lion cash injec­tion from lib­er­al bil­lion­aire George Soros, Kras­ner best­ed his near­est rival in the crowd­ed pri­ma­ry by an 18-point mar­gin, all but guar­an­tee­ing a gen­er­al-elec­tion vic­to­ry in the over­whelm­ing­ly Demo­c­ra­t­ic city.

Five months in office, he has an air of celebri­ty. A doc­u­men­tary film crew, which has been giv­en unre­strict­ed access, tails him as he leaves the pod­cast stage, dan­gling boom mics into his con­ver­sa­tions with audi­ence members.

Crim­i­nal jus­tice reform­ers are watch­ing Kras­ner close­ly. The Philadel­phia Coali­tion for a Just Dis­trict Attor­ney, a diverse group of decarcer­a­tion activists that helped elect Kras­ner, pounced on him for soft­en­ing his stance on the death penal­ty, which shift­ed from a firm nev­er” to a nev­er say nev­er” short­ly after tak­ing office. (While Penn­syl­va­nia hasn’t exe­cut­ed a con­vict­ed felon since 1999, Demo­c­ra­t­ic Gov. Tom Wolf’s mora­to­ri­um on cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment could be lift­ed if a Repub­li­can chal­lenger man­ages to unseat him lat­er this year.)

Although anti-prison groups have worked to unseat DAs around the coun­try, they main­tain a delib­er­ate skep­ti­cism about pro­gres­sive replace­ments. Man­hat­tan DA Cyrus Vance Jr., Los Ange­les DA Jack­ie Lacey and New Orleans DA Leon Can­niz­zaro ran as aggres­sive reform­ers but con­tin­ued harsh prac­tices, from zeal­ous­ly pros­e­cut­ing pan­han­dlers in monied neigh­bor­hoods to arrest­ing rape vic­tims who refused to testify. 

The racial jus­tice activists who helped elect Chica­go DA Kim Foxx in 2016 pio­neered a watch­dog mod­el to inde­pen­dent­ly mon­i­tor Foxx’s tri­umphs and short­com­ings. Three days after Kras­ner was elect­ed, the Coali­tion for a Just DA ral­lied out­side his office with a punch-list of demands for his first 100 days in office. Advo­cates say that, while they’re not check­ing off each action item indi­vid­u­al­ly, they’re close­ly mon­i­tor­ing his progress with Chica­go-inspired check-ins. 

They hold your feet to the fire,” Kras­ner says. Kras­ner can­non­balled into the office by axing 31 assis­tant DAs and oth­er high-rank­ing offi­cials from the 530-per­son staff. Dozens more have left, appar­ent­ly unwill­ing to adapt to the cul­ture under Krasner.

In Feb­ru­ary, he imple­ment­ed new rec­om­men­da­tions to elim­i­nate cash bail for most non­vi­o­lent offens­es. In March, he filed crim­i­nal charges against a police offi­cer who was filmed body-slam­ming a pedes­tri­an dur­ing an arrest. And he ordered his office’s 300 pros­e­cu­tors to seek lighter sen­tences in plea deals and, notably, to fac­tor the annu­al cost of incar­cer­at­ing an indi­vid­ual into sen­tenc­ing rec­om­men­da­tions — $42,000 annu­al­ly, accord­ing to his office.

But there’s a lot stand­ing in the way of the new­ly mint­ed DA’s agen­da. Philadel­phia is a city with 1.6 mil­lion res­i­dents, the third-high­est vio­lent crime rate of the 10 largest U.S. cities, a seem­ing­ly end­less drug war and an opi­oid cri­sis. In 2008, the last year fed­er­al data was avail­able, it had the fourth-high­est incar­cer­a­tion rate of any U.S. city. Some reforms were under­way when Kras­ner took office. 

The MacArthur Foun­da­tion issued the city a $3.5 mil­lion grant in 2016 to thin its bloat­ed jail pop­u­la­tion by 34 per­cent over three years. Strate­gies range from reduc­ing arrests to pro­vid­ing defen­dants with bet­ter legal coun­sel. One of the city’s old­est and most decrepit jails is now slat­ed to close. 

How­ev­er, despite pres­sure from both activists and city offi­cials, the local court sys­tem has expressed lit­tle inter­est in reform­ing its auto­mat­ic detain­er” pol­i­cy, which accounts for 50 per­cent of the coun­ty jail pop­u­la­tion. The pol­i­cy has led to the rein­car­cer­a­tion of thou­sands over pro­ba­tion and parole vio­la­tions, many of them nonviolent.

Judges also snubbed some of Krasner’s offers to rene­go­ti­ate sen­tences for juve­nile lif­ers. Sim­i­lar­ly, judges may ignore the office’s push to for­go cash bail if they don’t see anoth­er way to ensure court appear­ances. Alter­na­tives will take time to imple­ment. The city is con­duct­ing a fea­si­bil­i­ty study on open­ing 10-day report­ing cen­ters, which would allow dai­ly check-ins instead of jail time.

Kras­ner walks a fine line to avoid anger­ing his activist base while prov­ing to tra­di­tion­al law-and-order pro­po­nents that his reformist agen­da can work. One pro­posed alter­na­tive to jail, elec­tron­ic bracelet mon­i­tor­ing, remains anath­e­ma to some of Krasner’s sup­port­ers, who argue that e‑carceration” is just an insid­i­ous new form of incarceration. 

Fra­ter­nal Order of Police Lodge 5 Pres­i­dent John McNes­by has called Kras­ner dan­ger­ous” for the city. It may take 10 to 20 years to undo the dam­age being done by [Krasner’s] per­son­al, vin­dic­tive, coun­ter­pro­duc­tive agen­da,” says Richard Sax, a for­mer homi­cide pros­e­cu­tor. And a for­mer assis­tant DA, George Shotzbarg­er, recent­ly com­ment­ed on one of Sax’s anti-Kras­ner Face­book posts that the new DA’s poli­cies are so tox­ic, he might need to be put down” like the rabid dog in To Kill A Mock­ing­bird. His poli­cies need to be put down,” Shotzbarg­er lat­er clar­i­fied to reporters.

The Philadel­phia Inquir­er has quot­ed fam­i­lies of vio­lent crime vic­tims speak­ing against Krasner’s sen­tenc­ing poli­cies, adding gaso­line to the still-burn­ing alle­ga­tions that Kras­ner is anti-vic­tim.” This attack in par­tic­u­lar has Krasner’s base fired up. We are not going to be dis­tract­ed by false nar­ra­tives,” says Kris Hen­der­son, the legal direc­tor of Amis­tad Law Project. We are work­ing to uplift the voic­es of peo­ple who have been harmed by vio­lence who have dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives on pun­ish­ment and retribution.”

There’s a grow­ing recog­ni­tion that mea­sures like bail reform can in fact reduce crime. Stud­ies have shown that even two days in jail can desta­bi­lize someone’s life and increase rear­rest rates. Or, as Kras­ner likes to put it, the whole idea that safe­ty and jus­tice are alter­na­tives is bullshit.” 

At 4 p.m., the doc­u­men­tary crew packs up, and Kras­ner heads to a near­by beer gar­den to ditch his suit jack­et and loosen his tie. Asked about his law-and-order crit­ics, the DA is unfazed. Years as a civ­il rights lawyer have accus­tomed him to the enmi­ty of law enforce­ment. And he acknowl­edges that clean­ing house at the DA’s office will feel per­son­al to pros­e­cu­tors who built their careers in the era of mass incarceration.

There’s almost no way to talk about this kind of sweep­ing change to peo­ple in the [DA’s] office, who have good inten­tions but who have gone in oppo­site direc­tions their whole careers, with­out their tak­ing it per­son­al­ly,” he says.

Kras­ner believes that soon, he’ll be just anoth­er bor­ing” pros­e­cu­tor. I hope we’re seen as a bunch of bor­ing sell­outs, cause that is how this usu­al­ly goes,” he says, nurs­ing a beer. Ten or 15 years, they all look back and go, It wasn’t enough, they should have gone much far­ther, what a bunch of half-step­pin’ apologists.’ ”

Max M. Marin reports for <i>Philadelphia Weekly<i> on pol­i­tics, crim­i­nal jus­tice, the opi­oid cri­sis and oth­er topics.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue