Larry Krasner, one of America’s most fiery advocates for criminal justice reform, was elected district attorney of Philadelphia in 2017 on a platform of ending mass incarceration. He says that will be a 30-year project—but he is not taking any time off.
Already, Krasner has made aggressive strides towards ending cash bail and turning away from an era of long sentences. Just today, he asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to declare the death penalty unconstitutional. His goal is systemic change. Splinter spoke to him last weekend in Philadelphia about the progress and barriers in his path to reform, and what the Democratic party can do to help.
Splinter: What do you think your most meaningful accomplishments have been so far?
Larry Krasner: There is a serious discussion going on about some basic notions behind criminal justice. For example, it’s always been a part of criminal justice conservative orthodoxy that you are either all good or all bad, all victim or all perpetrator, and people don’t change. That is, needless to say, bullshit. People do change. They change profoundly, in many instances. And our approach to criminal justice should reflect that.
I think that discussion is under way, and that’s probably more profound than specific achievements. In terms of specific achievements, our bail policy has clearly been a big success. Our policies around shortening sentences in appropriate cases have been a big success. Our policy about reducing the level of excessive mass supervision has been a big success.
Are there any issues that are proving to be harder than you thought they would be when you entered office?
I thought they would all be hard. You’re talking about big change in a system that doesn’t like change. But I would say it’s pretty clear that we have had more success moving forward in time—in other words, handling current cases and doing justice in those cases—than we have had going backward in time. That primarily relates to another issue, which is when we can simply exercise our discretion to make a particular recommendation, or to seek or not seek the death penalty, to seek or not seek a particular charge, or not to bring a charge, that’s all us. That’s within our control... but when you try to go back in time, and you try to persuade a judge, for example, to shorten a period of probation that is excessively long where that probationer has been very successful for three or four or five years, that is more difficult. Because it requires others in the system to be on board with part of your mission.
So when you hear activists talk about, for example, releasing marijuana prisoners now that marijuana is widely legalized, that sort of goal is more difficult than people think?
Whenever you need the court system, or the judiciary, or the legislature to do something in order to accomplish a goal, it’s either not going to happen at all or it will be much more difficult. But when the problem can be solved by making decisions about how the DA’s office conducts itself, it’s just going to be much easier to do.
Whenever there’s a conspicuously violent weekend in Philly, your policies get blamed. How do you handle that dynamic?
That’s what we all have known was coming... if there’s ever a bad result, then we’ll blame it on the left. Think about it. We’ve had these conservative DAs in Philly forever, and when crime went down, they took credit. When crime went up, they just doubled down: lock up more people. More death penalties. Etcetera, etcetera. And somehow that was politically logical. But when the left does the same thing—and by the way, crime in Philly is flat 18 months into the administration. Violent crime is down two to three percent. We could all sit around and say, “we did all that.” That, of course, is nonsense. These are all related to structural issues. It’s not just an issue of who’s the DA... for us to respond and say “we’re gonna double down on being progressive” doesn’t make sense to those who’ve been hearing that draconian, right-wing, anti-freedom narrative.
How’s your relationship with the police?
I think our relationship with the commissioner, who is in general a forward-thinking moderate, is quite good. We talk frequently... the relationship with the leadership of the Fraternal Order of Police, which is the monolithic police union here, is war-like. And that is because they fundamentally stand for no accountability. And by them, I don’t mean the cops, I mean the leadership, with is 100 percent white, 100 percent Republican, Trump-supporting in a city that voted 85 percent for Hillary. That leadership is 100 percent against what we’re doing. It cuts into their overtime. It makes them accountable. It puts them on an even level with other people when their members may have committed a crime or may not be truthful, and they don’t like that. Who wants to be accountable?
Crime victims are often spoken of as natural opponents of your kind of reform policies. Do you find there’s an actual constituency of crime victims, or is that a political fiction?
There are real crime victims. I’m one. They don’t have any sort of singular, monolithic approach. They have been manipulated and used for political purposes at times in the past, and most of that derives from this false notion that prosecutors represent victims. They don’t. Prosecutors represent everybody within their jurisdiction. That means the people in the courtroom, that means victims, that means witnesses, and it actually means the defendant. And it also means everyone outside of the courtroom. That is the fundamental shift. Once you realize that, your obligation is to do justice for everyone. It certainly includes the crime victim. But it absolutely isn’t and never was to do whatever they tell you.
How do you scale these kinds of criminal justice reforms on a national level? Does every single city have to elect a DA like you?
It’s a situation in which the voters are gonna do it. But they don’t have to do it everywhere. If you’re going to correct mass incarceration, frankly, you don’t need to waste your time in a jurisdiction where there’s two judges, when you have a jurisdiction like Philly where there’s 110 judges. The drivers of mass incarceration are the large cities. As you can tell, the victories for progressive DAs and DA candidates are happening in really large jurisdictions. So even if it is just the large jurisdictions before it spreads to midsized and suburban jurisdictions, it’s going to have a huge impact on things like mass incarceration, on where tax money is capable of going.
Why do you think criminal justice reform pulls in, to some extent, people across parties, like the Koch brothers?
I think it is simply the fact that we are so drastically over-incarcerated that the impact is not just on the one in three black men that go to jail in their lifetime. The impact is on everyone that they know. All their cousins, and their friends, and their classmates, and their coworkers. So it has become a lived experience for so many people, because we are such a gulag, there’s political support... if you shift to what you might call the elites, there are a lot of people on the right—the Koch brothers included, Newt Gingrich included—who view excessive incarceration as being detrimental because it’s big government. And they’re right. It is big government. And they also view it as being not economically feasible in its own right, because it’s so expensive, and they’re right about that. And they also view it as being a huge drag on the economy. And once again, they’re right. I don’t agree with the Koch brothers about too much, but I certainly agree with them about that.
How far away do you think America is from the end of the era of mass incarceration?
Honestly I view this as being like any other great American social justice movement. I view these things as being on usually about a 30-year arc. We are perhaps ten years in. But it’s gonna take a long time, because once you build this monster, dismantling it is difficult.
How well do you think the national Democratic Party is doing on these issues?
It depends on whether they’d like to elect the next president. If they would like to elect the next president, they will stay away from the gooey middle—the centrist nonsense of being Republican-lite, which is how the Democratic party manages to lose. If they have any sense, they will realize this is a cutting-edge issue that will bring out disenfranchised and uninterested voters. Obama brought out voters, for a variety of reasons. Trump brought out voters. They might be a bunch of redneck racists, but he brought them out. The Democratic Party needs to bring out voters. Bringing out more of their super voters is not gonna be a problem—Trump’s already going to do that for them. What they need to do is bring out young voters, they need to bring out people who haven’t voted before, they need to bring out people who haven’t wanted to vote for a decade or more because they feel like the system is against them. And this is exactly the kind of issue that can bring out that surge of progressive votes that will win the election.
What do you see as the connection between the sort of criminal justice reform you’re doing, and solving the underlying issues like poverty?
The connection is you have to reinvest. The connect is you have to actually do the math on how much money is being spent by being so drastically over-incarcerated and having this behemoth of a system. That is not constructive. You have to find the ways to save [money], and then you have to reinvest it. You cannot let the savings be diluted or be put somewhere else to fill a budget hole. They have to go to exactly these structural issues that caused the crime in the first place. That’s the only way we’re ever getting to a prevention model based on the notion of human dignity, and one that will ultimately make us much safer.
What do the Democrats need to do to win Pennsylvania in 2020?
They need to not pick a centrist.