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

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.

BY Max M. Marin

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“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.

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

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 Philadelphia Weekly on politics, criminal justice, the opioid crisis and other topics.

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