Philly Is About to Get a Radical District Attorney. How Much Can He Really Change?

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Larry Krasner, a civil rights attorney who built his professional reputation defending protesters and suing the police, is almost certainly going to be Philadelphia’s next district attorney. Last month, Krasner beat out six other candidates in the Democratic primary—clobbering his closest opponent by a near 18-point margin—on a promise to put fewer people in jail and ruthlessly clean house in the office he intends to run.


“The bottom line is that even though change is difficult for everyone, when the report card is a whole row of Fs, something has to change,” Krasner tells me at Fusion’s office on a warm afternoon in June. “And something is going to change.”

He’s well-positioned to do it. Krasner campaigned as a guy who wasn’t afraid to blow shit up, and he’ll be partnered with a city that’s already working to change how it polices and incarcerates people.

But the situation Krasner will inherit if he wins the November general election is representative of a bigger problem facing reform-minded policymakers nationally: In places where some of these policies have been in place for years, many of the reforms—drug courts, fines instead of jail, bias training for cops—haven’t gone nearly far enough or have replicated some of the same problems and patterns they were meant to address in the first place.


In Philadelphia, despite a slate of recent changes to policing and sentencing practices, the city continues to have the highest incarceration rate of any large jurisdiction in the country. The people detained in its jails—most of whom are black and awaiting trial for nonviolent offenses—tend to stay there four times longer than the national average. Cops still have an illegal search problem, and overdose deaths surged in 2016—outnumbering homicides by a factor of three.

Fixing problems as entrenched and destructive as this country’s incarceration crisis is a complex undertaking, but the feel-good image of emerging bipartisan consensus on criminal justice reform can sometimes obscure that. So how do you reform the reforms?

The question isn’t lost on Krasner, which is why we start talking about drug courts. Since 1997, Philadelphia has used the program to allow certain people convicted of drug-related offenses to avoid jail time by attending counseling and submitting to routine drug screenings. Krasner sees them as a good option, and called for their expansion during his campaign.


Drug courts are often held up as the gold standard in alternatives to incarceration for drug offenses—and there are real success stories—but many health policy advocates and addiction specialists, from the Drug Policy Alliance to Human Rights Watch, remain critical of the model as punitive and a poor substitute for non-coercive, comprehensive addiction treatment. Krasner says he knows that diversion programs like drug courts can sometimes act as an “on-ramp to incarceration,” but believes it’s possible to improve the system rather than abandon it, returning again to the idea of discretion at all levels of the criminal justice system.

“So rather than viewing a positive drug test by someone who is fighting addiction as being a reason to turn that into a conviction, people who understand addiction view it as part of a process in which there have to be second and third and sometimes fourth and fifth chances,” he says.


Turning toward an addiction-centered approach to drug offenses is popular enough that Chris Christie has developed talking points around it, but it turns out—particularly when the nation faces Medicaid cuts that will be catastrophic for people with substance abuse problems—the execution is often a lot harder than the rhetoric. Krasner and the Koch brothers might both agree that the United States often incarcerates people who actually just need treatment, but only one of them supports single payer universal healthcare as a way out of the cycle.

There’s also the question of how far a reform movement focused on nonviolent offenses can go when so many incarcerated people in the United States are in prison for offenses considered violent, serving sentences that do virtually nothing in the way of education and rehabilitation.


These cases are harder to talk about, so people often don’t talk about them.

When I ask him about what reform might mean for someone convicted of domestic violence, Krasner returns to the language of public health and harm reduction, a thread that connects most of his policy positions. He also uses a word you don’t hear often from cops or prosecutors: “trauma.” Cycles of trauma, actually.


“We have a very, very long history in criminal justice of not addressing trauma,” he says. “A lot of research indicates that when people are harmed and they lose control [of their own life], whether they are victimized by violence or in some other fashion that is profound, what they do is they later act out in their lives in a way so that they can be in control.” The explanation is no excuse, he says, but if we want to reduce crime, “we need to address the trauma that is visited on all of these different players in the system.”

Prosecutors can do more to take a victim’s perspective into account; sometimes they want to preserve the relationship, sometimes they need support getting out of it, he says. But, ultimately, solving the problem is bigger than the DA’s office—which is why the conversation around criminal justice reform needs to be, too.


“By the time the blood is on the ground and the person has been arrested and is in the courtroom, it’s way too late,” he says. He starts talking about good jobs, public education—“all of these factors have a direct correlation with the reduction of crime” and have “nothing to do with a prosecutor.”

It’s this kind of candor that may turn out to be one of the more transformational things about Krasner as a candidate, and Philadelphia’s likely DA.


“Unfortunately, some of these things take a long time,” Krasner continues. “If we really want to reduce crime then we have to assume a prevention model...and get past this frankly fascist notion that a district attorney is a strong man or a strong woman who solves crime singlehandedly.”

Senior editor, Jezebel

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