DA Krasner enacts new vision for criminal justice system in Philadelphia
In the first year of his administration, District Attorney Larry Krasner has fulfilled several of the campaign promises which gained him the support of nearly 75 percent of Philadelphia voters and swept him into office in 2017. But how successful have the changes that Krasner has introduced been in reducing the city's out-sized incarceration rate - and what will be the consequences locally and nationally as he continues in his efforts to reform the criminal justice system?
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner allows his work as a reformer of the criminal justice system to be described as “radical,” — he’s “not afraid” of the term, he says — but he takes care to parse the definition and point out that the work that he and other progressive prosecutors are doing across the country to reduce incarceration represents an effort to “get back to what should be normal.”
“I would argue that what is radical is taking a steady level of incarceration for decades — up through the 1970s, which was consistent, not too different from other countries around the world — and then causing a spike in that incarceration to make the United States the most incarcerated nation in the world,” Krasner told AL DÍA in late March.
“When you take the longer, historical lens, people who really have been radical are the people on the right who wanted to lock everybody up,” he added.
In describing the vision of reform which he has brought to the DA’s Office, one that is arguably unlike any other Philadelphia has ever seen, Krasner often alternates between the views of a wide-angle “historical lens” and a zoomed-in look at the individual experiences of Philadelphians who have been directly affected by the criminal justice system.
While talking about changes in the city’s new parole and probation policy, which will reduce the number of people on supervision, the former public defender cited that there are 40,000 people on probation and parole in Philadelphia, compared to 12,700 in New York City, a city nearly six times larger. He then described how the realities of probation sentencing in the city can affect one individual life.
A returning citizen might get a job, and start working to provide for their family, but absences from work for weekly check-ins with a probation officer take a cumulative toll after five years for what should have been two years of parole, Krasner explained. Eventually, the returning citizen feels pressured to choose work over parole mandates, and risks incurring a technical violation that will send them back to jail.
The excessive supervision “just becomes a bunch of tripwires that people fall over as they are successfully getting themselves and getting their lives together, going a better course,” Krasner said. “It actually causes them to fail.”
Krasner paints a vivid picture of what the impact of these policies and reforms actually mean in the life of any Philadelphian - not just one with the stature of Meek Mill, whose technical violations incurred while on probation landed him a two-year sentence behind bars and has led his case to be among the most high profile that the DA’s Office has handled.
But Krasner acknowledged that Meek Mill’s case can be seen as representative of the glaring imbalances in probation and parole sentencing that many average Philadelphians must confront, without the support of money and fame, which the local rapper was able to mobilize for his case.
The DA noted that Pennsylvania is the second-worst state in the country for excessive parole and probation sentencing combined.
“The problem I have is that we have a legislature, we have lawmakers in the state, who are not ready to change the laws as much as they should,” Krasner said. “But we in Philadelphia need to be safe. We need to use our resources for the things that are going to prevent crime in the long run, so we have to do in Philadelphia what we can right now to make this situation better, and hopefully the lawmakers will catch up with us in a few years.”
The district attorney’s focus on applying the law with an eye to the historical and societal contexts that shape what individual justice looks like — a hallmark of his approach to training new prosecutors — is an integral part of shaping a system that is more balanced and, statistically speaking, has greater success in making society safer for everyone.
The reduction of parole and probation sentencing is the latest in a series of moves the District Attorney has made in his first year in office that have stayed true to the course dictated by his campaign. Reforms have included: prosecutors no longer seeking cash bail for many nonviolent crimes; dropping charges of marijuana possession for all amounts; dropping charges for sex workers before a third conviction; the lowest possible charge for shoplifting values under $500; and an overall insistence on seeking alternatives to incarceration when possible.
In July, the DA’s Office under Krasner also provided two of the three necessary votes to end the PARS contract, an agreement which allowed Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) to access arraignment data from the Philadelphia Police Department’s database. And as one of his first moves in office, Krasner created the position of Immigration Counsel for the DAO, and hired immigration attorney and former public defender Caleb Arnold to improve prosecutors’ handling of cases involving immigrant defendants.
“It’s rare that you have politicians who are not only elected to office, and work hard to fulfill their campaign promises, but in Larry’s case, who continued to interact with supporters and say: ‘What is important to you? What do I need to be doing? What are the issues that I need to focus on and what’s the order of priority?’” said J. Jondhi Harrell, executive director of The Center for Returning Citizens.
Harrell was one of a group of activists and community organizations who formed Coalition for a Just District Attorney, which supported Krasner in his run and, by Harrell’s telling, continues to hold the now-elected Krasner accountable for campaign promises.
A returning citizen himself, Harrell said that the candidate’s platform and reputation was an indicator to Harrell and like-minded voters that "this just might be the candidate whose campaign promises you can believe."
That body of work consisted in working for six years as a public defender in Philadelphia after graduating from Stanford Law School in 1987. Krasner later established his own private practice, and went on to spend the next several decades working as a civil rights attorney.
Harrell said that this aspect is often missed in the aftermath of his victory, and is indicative of why those who supported Krasner’s campaign continue to have an open communication with the DA’s Office, even after his election.
“They listen to us, they respond to us,” said Harrell.
The most tangible result of the reforms so far, which Krasner cites as the proudest achievement of the “movement” that put him into office, has been the reduction of the number of people incarcerated in Philadelphia County jails, which fell from 6,500 to 4,700 people last year.
The fact that the administration accomplished this without the overall crime rate going up — violent crime, in fact, went down by five percent in 2018, according to Philadelphia Police Department data — is proof, said Krasner, that “we really were able to reduce jail population and we did not do what our opponents said we would do, which was to make the city unsafe.”
Harrell pointed out that there are multiple factors that have contributed to the citywide movement to reduce incarceration — including the Close the Creek campaign, led by Harrell and other formerly incarcerated people, which led the city to decide to close the House of Corrections, better known as the Creek, in April of last year, as well as the results so far of the $3.5 million MacArthur Foundation grant which the city received in 2015 and pledged to use to reduce the prison population.
Before Krasner was elected and took office, city efforts fueled by the grant resulted in a 20 percent reduction of the number of people in prison in just two years; combined with the drastic decrease in the incarcerated population in Krasner’s first year in office, that has led to a drastic 41.2 percent decrease overall in the number of people incarcerated in Philadelphia County jails, with the number falling from 8,000 in Jan. 2015 to 4,700 in Jan. 2019.
But Harrell said that the most recent reduction of prison population is also a direct result of Krasner’s cash bail and marijuana possession reforms, as well as the new “philosophy” of seeking alternatives to incarceration that is “beginning to permeate the prosecutor’s office, and by extension, the court system.”
However, the numbers are also clear that the homicide rate has continued to spike, and shows no signs of slowing down. Last year, there were 351 homicides, and 317 were recorded in 2017.
Krasner said that when analyzing motives for homicides with Police Comissioner Richard Ross, it became evident that the one motive category almost single-handedly responsible for the increase was drug-related murder.
“We have some terrible problems to address, we are in the middle of an opioid crisis, we have had a spike in homicides, we have had, at times, a spike in shootings. So these are really serious matters, I’m not minimizing any of them,” he said.
But, according to Krasner, despite continued use of targeted law enforcement to address the opioid crisis and drug-related homicides: “We’re not going to arrest our way out of this.”
“In a holistic way, in a citywide way, we’ve got to get to the point where 16-year-old boys are not desperate, they haven’t given up hope, they have something better to do than sell drugs on a corner and pick up guns and shoot each other over some insult on Facebook,” Krasner said, adding, “For me, ultimately, that has to be about job opportunities, and it has to be about education.”
But across the city, the jury is still out on whether Krasner is, truly, making the city a safer place and caring for victims of crimes as much as ensuring that justice is evenly served.
Though Krasner established the Office’s first Victims and Witness Services Unit this past year, designed to specifically attend to the needs of victims of crimes and their families, there have been some individual crime victims, family members of victims, and groups, such as the Philadelphia Police Department Union, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), that have been outspoken in their assertions that the DA’s Office was operating on their own agenda rather than with the best interests of victims and victims’ families in mind.
That’s not to mention the 31 assistant district attorneys that Krasner fired within his first week in office, which continues to cause backlash among some in the legal community.
In January, FOP president John McNesby attacked the District Attorney's policies on Fox News, stating that Krasner had shown “great disdain and dislike for law enforcement,” and was implementing policies that would be harmful to the city, encouraging crime by reducing the incarcerated population.
Krasner said that enacting the reforms his office has focused on, and the resulting decrease in violent crime recorded so far shows that McNesby’s view that reducing the incarcerated population will cause an increase in crime is far from validated.
“We’re trying to solve more serious crimes, and in order to do that we have to have a relationship of trust between police and the communities that they serve, and also between prosecutors and the communities that they serve,” said Krasner. “If the public is afraid of police, because they feel like they are military, they feel like their neighborhoods are occupied, then that makes it harder, not easier, to solve crimes.”
No matter where Philadelphians stand on Krasner’s reforms of the city’s criminal justice system, it is indisputable that the whole nation is watching to see how they will play out. As the largest city yet to be headed by a progressive prosecutor, and the city with the highest incarceration rate of the largest cities in America, Philadelphia is the starting point for reforms that will have an impact throughout the country.
Krasner often emphasizes the “science” behind his initiative — in his eyes, the numbers will calibrate the success (or failure) of the reforms he has implemented since taking office last year. In an interview with AL DÍA, he noted that he is helped in that analysis by collaborations with technologists and academic researchers.
After reforming the cash bail policy in Feb. 2018, Krasner and his team wanted to know if the reduction in the number of people held in jail for small amounts of bail ahead of their court dates would result in a spike in crime levels, or a greater percentage of missed hearings.
A year later, Krasner and a team of data specialists, funded in part by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, assessed the effects to discern that the elimination of cash bail had not led to a rise in defendants failing to appear in court, higher recidivism rates, or any other significant outcomes.
The findings of that assessment were written about in a report published by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and George Mason University.
Krasner pointed to academic research like this report as an example of a more collaborative, open process in implementing and studying the effects of the reforms instituted by progressive prosecutors.
“We do not think we know everything. We do not think every decision is going to be right or is right even now,” Krasner told AL DÍA. “But we have to be open to seeing what will really work so that we can change things when we’ve misstepped, and we can continue with policies that seem to be working.”