DA Larry Krasner: The quest to continue a movement
Krasner’s election in 2017 sparked the progressive wave that captured the city in the years that followed. Now, it faces its biggest challenge to date.
When asking Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner about what he thought of the office he was running for in 2017, he’ll tell you he knew exactly what he was getting into having worked around it for more than 30 years.
First, it was as a public defender in state court, then as a public defender in federal court, and finally, 25 years in his own private practice.
“I was in court four, five days a week,” said Krasner in an interview with AL DÍA.
Not only did he know many of the lawyers and supervisors in the office, having been in the courtroom with them over decades, but he also learned many police procedures and record-keeping practices having specialized as a criminal defense and civil rights attorney.
“What things tend to get hidden, how they’re hidden, how to reveal what was there,” said Krasner of the experience.
In 2017, he won convincingly on the message of changing many of those practices and how the DA’s Office played a part in their usage.
But now, four years into the job as Philadelphia’s District Attorney, Krasner admits it was worse than he thought. What his administration found upon taking control of the DA’s office was a culture modeled on the discriminatory system in which it operated.
For starters, since taking office, the conviction integrity unit under Krasner’s watch has exonerated 20 wrongfully-convicted people in three-and-a-half years.
That comes, says Krasner, from an office “that barely knew how to spell ‘exoneration’ before.”
In some cases, prosecutors had access to 15 or 16 witness statements, but only turned three over to the defense. One in particular, according to Krasner, had done so for three of the wrongful convictions his office has since overturned.
During the early days of Krasner’s term, his team also found the infamous ‘Damaged goods’ file, which was a list of bad police officers should they ever need them to testify in court.
The new DA found the list striking for two reasons.
“Number one, the list was too short, number two, it was a list of people who this office recognized were liars or cheats, or thieves or perjurers,” said Krasner.
In almost every case these officers were involved, none of their baggage was turned over to the defense, he continued.
“They were keeping documentation of their own violations of the Constitution,” said Krasner.
In addition to its practices within the criminal justice system of Philadelphia, the culture also infected internal operations. Not only was discriminatory behavior the norm towards women, Black, Latinx and Asian individuals, but it was also reflected in their compensation.
Krasner told AL DÍA that he is “extremely proud” of the progress he has made in diversifying the office workforce.
It’s been slow, but according to annual diversity reports from fiscal years 2018 and 2019 by the City Controller’s Office on its exempt workforce, Krasner has slightly increased diversity in the office over both years.
White prosecutors are still overrepresented, and Black, Latinx and Asian prosecutors remain underrepresented, but even so, the incumbent says his changes have made an impact.
In 2018, Krasner’s office told Billy Penn a little more about its “revamped” hiring practices, which included “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.”
“The level of talent we are hiring is so much higher,” Krasner told AL DÍA.
Another point of progress pointed to by the incumbent DA, was his office’s ability to reduce both the overall jail population in Philadelphia and the number of people on probation.
In regards to reducing jail population, it’s something that’s been dropping since 2015, when the city first partnered with the MacArthur Foundation to put more funding towards the effort. Since then, the city has reduced its jail population by 43%.
It’s fourth and most recent grant came from the foundation in February 2021, and is worth $2.2 million to further reduce the jail population by another 15%.
Krasner’s efforts to reduce the number of Philadelphians behind bars have amounted to fighting to end, but settling to change the cash bail system in the city.
When he first took office, another early move was to direct prosecutors not to seek cash bail for 25 low-level crimes that represented 61% of all crimes committed in the city at the time. It had an effect, but only on misdemeanors, as those with applicable felony charges were still given bail to post.
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Krasner also followed the lead of New York City, Los Angeles and New Jersey in attempting to reduce Philly’s jail population to protect medically-vulnerable inmates.
When it comes to probation, Krasner’s efforts to reduce supervision are much more apparent when looking at the numbers.
In 2018, a Columbia University study found that Pennsylvania was the third-most supervised state in the nation, and Philadelphia was the country’s most-supervised big city.
The study put the number at one in 22 adults in the city that were under probation. Krasner told AL DÍA there were 40,000-plus when he took office.
In April, the DA’s office put out a review of the impact its policies had on probation numbers and found that it had reduced the number of people under supervision by a third. The total population on probation now sits around 28,000.
The early changes made by Krasner instructed prosecutors not to seek probation terms longer than 36 months for most felonies and 12 months for most misdemeanors.
In addition to the overall reduction of probation numbers, the Philadelphia Inquirer also highlighted how the changes had reduced the disparity in probation terms between Black and white defendants.
On average, Black defendants would have probation terms 10.8 months longer than white defendants. Now, that difference is 5.2 months.
But it hasn’t all been rosy with Krasner in charge, and some of his biggest opponents point to some of the previously-stated policy changes as reasons for the massive rise of gun violence in the city since he took over.
By the numbers, Philadelphia has seen an increase in homicides in all three previous years of Krasner’s time as DA.
2020 was the worst year for the city in decades, at 499 homicides, and 2021 is shaping up to possibly be the worst in Philly’s history, with 196 homicides through May 16.
When speaking on issue of gun violence, Krasner separates it from overall violent crime (which in addition to murder, also includes rape, robbery, and aggravated assault). It is down across the country, and has trended slightly down in Philadelphia.
But the homicide rate is way up, and as a result of the pandemic, is up across the country. To paint his point, Krasner cited a study from the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice that analyzed the rise of the homicide rate in municipalities across the U.S. amid the pandemic.
Of the 34 municipalities analyzed, Philadelphia placed 23rd in homicide rate increase, at 27%.
“I don’t say any of that to say it’s okay, it’s not okay. But I say it because it’s how you figure out what’s wrong,” said Krasner.
He went on to look at all the cities with higher homicide rate increases.
“You have Republicans running them, and you have Democrats running them, you have traditional prosecutors, you have progressive prosecutors. There is no pattern,” said Krasner, shooting down a tactic often used against his own progressive agenda.
Eventually, he came back to the effects of pandemic, and their once-in-a-lifetime impact on cities like Philadelphia as the common denominator when looking at the explosion of homicides.
“What is happening are that high school classrooms are shut down, and summer camps are shut down. You have swimming pools and rec centers, shut down, you have organized sports in school and out of school, which affect millions of young people, shut down. That has never ever happened in 60 years of my life,” said Krasner.
To continue, he also pointed to the overarching economic depression, and how it, like the pandemic itself, affected Black and Brown communities the worst. It meant the loss of financial security for many, and almost no job programs or opportunities for youth.
“What we are actually seeing is how incredibly important all of those things are in keeping young people from killing young people, because that’s what we’re seeing,” said Krasner.
For those that want to politicize the issue and say it’s because not enough people are being locked up, he calls them “completely wrong and frankly, pretty cynical.”
“What they should be saying, is that we have undervalued this part of our social fabric. We need to restore it once vaccinations allow that, but we also need to invest more heavily in it,” said Krasner.
Through more investment, the incumbent sees it enacting the change people want to see.
That’s also the continued message for Krasner as he seeks a second term as Philadelphia District Attorney.
“Change is a very slow process,” he said.
Krasner admits there’s plenty of work left to do — another 10 years of reform by his estimation — but already, he believes his campaign and those of many other progressive DAs across the country have changed the conversation around criminal justice.
“It all comes from the same notion, which is that the criminal justice system went way too far in the direction of punishment in ways that are not constructive,” he said.
In other words, there was no accountability alongside rehabilitation.
When talking to AL DÍA, he noted the effect of his campaign’s progressive message for reform, even on his opponents.
“All these other people, whose whole careers had been about hanging them high and too many years in jail was not enough, all of a sudden, they came around. They’re about reform,” said Krasner in a not-so-subtle jab at his opponent on May 17, Carlos Vega. “That tells you, that even when they’re not really in favor of reform, they think they have to say it because they think that’s where the voters are.”
“They’re right,” he said.
Krasner will find out if his predictions about voters in Philly are correct on May 18.