The incumbent Philadelphia County district attorney wants to continue cutting back on mass incarceration. And he has the policy ideas to do so.
By Matt Keyser
National Partnership for Pretrial Justice
Note: This Q&A is part of an NPPJ series spotlighting progressive prosecutors across the nation.
It was 9 a.m. when Larry Krasner joined our Zoom meeting, and I was in a panic. At a time when I desperately needed technology to work, it was failing me as my video feed refused to show any video.
“Good morning, sir,” I said, scrambling through all the troubleshooting tips I learned throughout the pandemic, none of which were working.
“Good morning, Matt,” he replied, in his tan suit jacket, a blue-and-gray-striped tie, and his graying hair neatly parted to the side. “I can’t see you.”
Defeated, I admitted my problem and, given our short window for our interview, asked if he would be okay proceeding without my video.
“How do I know you’re not Donald Trump?” he asked, jokingly, but I sensed a touch of seriousness in his tone.
“I can assure you I’m not Donald Trump,” I said, laughing.
He smiled. “That’s exactly what Donald Trump or one of his operatives would say.”
At a time when many politicians approach interviews with a cut-and-dry, let’s-get-this-over-with attitude, it was refreshing speaking with the Philadelphia County district attorney who could joke one minute and discuss using data to make informed policy decisions the next.
Ultimately, I resorted to using Zoom on my phone to prove I wasn’t the former president or one of his cohorts. During our 30-minute conversation, I spoke with Krasner, the incumbent district attorney who is coming off a decisive victory in the Democratic primary, about his past as a public defense attorney, his first term as elected DA, and the fight he faces as a progressive prosecutor in America.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NPPJ: As you look back at your first term, what are you most proud of?
Larry Krasner: We’re proud of quite a lot. We’re proud of some of the specific changes—measurable changes—that go to our core promises, which have to do with mass incarceration, mass supervision, and fairness. For example, if you look at the number of years of incarceration generated by the Philly courts. After we took office, we cut it in half when compared to prior administrations. Everybody talks about this behemoth of mass incarceration. Well, it turns out that when you put people in position to reduce mass incarceration—especially in major cities where they have an outsized influence—they can reduce it very quickly. The car has a gas pedal, and traditional prosecutors have been slamming it to lock people up. But it also has a brake pedal, too, and some of us need to slam it to get it back to reasonable speed.
When it came to mass supervision, we cut the future years of mass supervision on probation and parole down by about two-thirds. It’s remarkable in the most over-supervised of the 10 largest cities in the United States to do that in three years.
In juvenile justice, nearly all of our cases are resolved in juvenile court even though Pennsylvania law pushes a lot of cases toward adult court and we have to make certain efforts to bring them back.
When we look to the office itself, I’m very proud of the fact that by this September we expect there will have been a 100 percent increase in essentially every aspect of diversity in the office, including attorneys, which is not the simplest thing to do. You have to make some effort, you have to do some outreach, you have to go to schools where your office may not have gone before. And we have gone to all six remaining HBCU law schools and recruited some of our most talented people from these great schools.
NPPJ: I find it interesting that you talk about measurable changes. It sounds like you’re not just coming in and making changes for the sake of change, but you’re closely monitoring those changes to evaluate their impacts.
LK: We do. And we have benefitted from generous, grant-funded support from Arnold Ventures and also CZI [the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative]. We have benefited from grant-funded support for the first-ever data lab in the history of the DA’s office. It went from essentially zero people collecting metrics and data on policies within criminal justice to about 15. Right now, they are currently headed by three people, one of whom is a PhD criminologist.
It’s really uncharted territory, because an outward-facing, public-oriented data lab that is trying to objectively study policies and whether or not they work, is then putting it up on a dashboard so people can read your successes and failures on a daily basis. This is not what traditional DAs have done previously. They always wanted to live in a black box, because they were fundamentally more politically oriented than they were oriented towards their job, which is to seek justice. This is a big deal, and it’s been a tremendous asset to us.
It’s also been a challenge in that the information that we put up for public consumption sometimes is put back in our face, either because our results aren’t perfect—and they won’t always be—or it’s put back in our face because someone misunderstood the data. But it’s what we should do. Transparency is important. Metrics are important.
So I view the data not only as being important, I actually think the data is the most important antidote to the steady and inaccurate narrative that has been coming from the media for 100 years. There has been a very, very steady narrative that is unscientific, that is sensational, that talks about outlier cases that tells true stories about terrible incidents, but does not actually describe what we need to know about the criminal justice system to make it better.
NPPJ: I’m glad you brought that up because there seems to be a lot of pushback from the other side of the aisle against prosecutors such as yourself, people who want to maintain the status quo with more prosecution, more incarceration, all in the name of public safety. How do you fight back against those people to show that what’s been the status quo for decades isn’t the answer and there are more effective ways to achieving a shared goal?
LK: There’s really two ways to bring out the truth, and they are the same. There’s telling the truth with numbers and there’s telling the truth with a story. You know, Jesus used parables for a reason. When you tell people stories, and even if you look at law, cases are stories. They’re stories of something that happened in the past, and the characteristics of that story give us a lesson for the future. If you simultaneously can be transparent with data and also bring out the stories of individuals.
What is new and irreplaceable is the data, because it has always been possible to tell individual stories that are horror stories about Charles Manson or that will break your heart about an innocent person. What has not always been possible is to use data in a sweeping way to show the big picture. And even in a granular way, which is what I’m really looking forward to. We should really break it down in a granular way and make it specific as to decision points, make it specific as to prosecutors, even as to particular judges or particular defense attorneys, or the racial composition of juries and what they tend to do. All of that is stuff we need to see.
And I think it’s going to be very surprising; it’s not actually going to be what people expect. As with all things, the left and right and middle have certain stereotypes about how this all works; none of us are right. So it’ll be interesting and important to see that so we can make it better.
Progressive Prosecutors Series
NPPJ: As you seek reelection for a second term, you received a huge win in the primary. I’m curious what message you think the voters are sending you with such a decisive victory?
LK: I don’t think there’s any question based not only on the election results but the polling we did during the election that voters want progressive prosecution. They want it even when there’s a biased narrative coming—not all of the time, but much of the time—that is negative from the press. They want it even when the other institutions, like the mainstream political institutions in Philly, are not with you.
Let us be clear: the Democratic Party boss in Philly, who has almost always endorsed the incumbent, which I was, did not endorse. The current mayor of the city of Philadelphia did not endorse. If one were to take it personally, which I do not, these are really slaps in the face and deliberate efforts at undermining a sitting progressive incumbent prosecutor. But the people were not having it.
And even more strikingly, we’re having a once-in-a-century crisis with gun violence. There’s really no question about that as you talk to criminologists. There’s no question it’s a national phenomenon terribly affecting major cities, badly affecting Philly.
And in that climate of concern where you have more women and kids being killed, where you have more and more killings that are occurring due to gun violence in the street, you would think that there would be some weakness on the part of progressive prosecutors who have been talking about things that aren’t as retributive, that don’t feel like getting back what has just happened, that don’t satisfy that emotional, visceral response that people have always wanted. You would think that would have been a bad time for us.
But if you actually look at the neighborhoods where there were the most shootings, where there was the most victimization, where there were the largest number of people who were killed with gunfire, we didn’t win by two out of every three votes—we won with 80 percent of the vote. I mean it was overwhelming.
And this was against an opponent who raised a lot of money—we’re talking something like $1.9 million. I mean, he outraised our campaign. And even with all of that institutional resistance pushing back—whether it was media or mainstream politics—even with all of that, this was an absolutely resounding victory.
So I think the answer is actually quite simple: We have to run the data. We have to tell the individual stories. We have to communicate directly.
NPPJ: Given your background, especially as a former defense and civil rights attorney, how has your past helped shape your views now that you’re on the opposite side of the courtroom?
LK: Well, understand that I have never been of the opinion that one side has all the answers. When I came out of law school, I applied for prosecutor jobs and I also applied for public defender jobs. I was offered both. But in 1987, the truth is, I was a much better fit with public defender’s offices, so I took a job with them rather than a prosecutorial job. The system seemed hell bent on a war on drugs and even more mass incarceration. And that’s exactly what it was doing. I never would have fit in that world. So I felt like the work I did my first 30 years was an effort to balance the craziness that was happening on the prosecutorial side and on the judicial side, because judges were largely doing whatever prosecutors wanted. And legislators were in on that, too
I feel like what I’m doing now is a continuation of that work, because we came to a point in history where change was possible, where people wanted it. I felt like I was always seeking justice in an unfair system before. And now I still feel like I’m seeking justice in an unfair system, I’m just able to achieve it in a more sweeping way because the people’s attitudes have changed. Americans have been so crushed and so burdened by mass incarceration, for one example, that they feel it in their own lives, the lives of their friends, the lives of their families. And in many ways, what happens now is just the inevitable result of doing something unjust for a very, very long period of time until the weight of the injustice becomes unavoidable and people want change.
When you are a defense attorney and a civil rights attorney focusing on police abuse for enough years, you know where a lot of the bodies can be buried, where a lot of the secrets might be, the dirty corners of the prosecutor’s office. Of course, there are some things you don’t know, and I’ll be candid about that. But you certainly know the rationalizations, the culture of avoiding things, like turning over evidence to the defense that is favorable to them, which the Constitution absolutely requires.
I think I’m a much better chief prosecutor having been a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer for 30 years than I would ever be if I had been a prosecutor all of those years.
NPPJ: Around the country right now, there’s so much talk about bail reform. You have states like Kentucky and New Jersey that have enacted new bail laws that are less reliant on money bail, yet you also have states like Texas where lawmakers are attempting to rollback bail laws and rely more heavily on cash bail and jailing people who have yet to be convicted of a crime. As a prosecutor, what do you think good bail reform looks like?
LK: I would love to see the elimination of cash bail. It’s something that is best done by statute. What you have to do is what they did in [Washington] D.C. over 30 years ago, which is you have to pass a law that says to judges, “You can’t use money.” If someone presents a terrible danger to the community, then Mr. Ted Bundy will be held without bail, no matter how rich he is, no matter how rich his friends are, Ted Bundy is going to sit.
At the other end of it, a naked homeless man who was found in an affluent park in the middle of the city who can’t pay a nickel because he doesn’t have a wallet, he doesn’t have any pants, he gets no bail and gets out. That’s really what we have to do.
And if you look at where it’s been done effectively, and D.C. is a pretty good example, about 88 percent of people don’t pay a nickel to get out. And 12 percent of people in D.C., on average, sat in. Why? Because there was probable cause — and often a lot more than probable cause. They sat in for reasons that are rational, that make sense. That is what I would like to see.
I would love to see Philadelphia get away from money because the problem with the money bail system is it hurts on both ends. When you have a very dangerous person with resources, they’re going to get out, which is bad. And when you have poor people, which is the more common situation, who have done something that is not so serious, who do not have a record that signifies they’re a terrible danger to the community, they’re going to sit in because they don’t have a nickel. And taxpayers are going to often pay more than the amount of bail just to keep them in. That is a terrible system. Money has got to go.
I am completely in favor of the elimination of cash bail. I wish I could snap my fingers and do it in Philadelphia, but I can’t.
NPPJ: You still have an election coming in November. As you look ahead and at the possibility of a second term, what are your goals moving forward?
LK: We are really excited about trying to move forward with a bunch of different policy ideas. We may be looking at increasing the number of offenses that we will not charge criminally. For example, we stopped charging what is known locally as the offense of prostitution—it basically means sex work—because we view it as a public health issue and we view the people who are participating, generally speaking, as being victims whose recovery is not well served by giving them a criminal record.
We also eliminated the prosecution of possession of marijuana, because we’re not crazy. Come on now, it’s going to be legal. We believe there are additional offenses that should probably be addressed with civil tickets in the same way we address a lot of traffic violations, parking violations. We feel more of it should be done that way.
We are going to be looking at ways to separate the wheat from the chaff, and what I mean by that is to focus on the most serious crimes that tear apart society—the most violent offenses. Often these are first-degree violent felonies. We’re looking at separating them out from things that are a lot less serious. Teenagers having a fistfight in the park and punching each other can easily be charged as an [aggravated] assault or simple assault. Or it could be diverted and usually should be diverted. Someone who is carrying a gun and has no prior record, and doing so entirely out of fear, is in a very different place in Philadelphia County, the only county in Pennsylvania where you’re required to have a permit to carry. That person is in a very different place than someone who is a driver of gun violence and is involved in group or gang activity. There should be diversion.
I could go on and on, but let me just say this: We are clear that the people are with us. The only things standing in the way are institutions that aren’t ready to embrace change yet. We’re going to help them embrace it. And we’re going to help them embrace it in the next four years.