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Philadelphia DA Wants To Dismantle Mass Incarceration From The Inside Out

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner at WHYY studios. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner at WHYY studios. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner once called himself “unelectable.” Yet the 57-year-old attorney, known for being as outspoken as he is progressive, was sworn into office in January after winning the November election in a landslide.

His platform was no less than reforming the criminal justice system, working to end mass incarceration and taking responsibility for the fiscal realities of sentencing. Some have called Krasner’s efforts nothing short of a criminal justice revolution — but he says he doesn’t see it that way.

“I’m a lawyer” Krasner tells Here & Now‘s Eric Westervelt (@Ericnpr). “We don’t know how to do revolution.”

However, Krasner is already taking steps to change the way Philadelphia looks at sentencing, parole, bail and incarceration.

Interview Highlights

On his stated goal of ending mass incarceration and bringing balance back to sentencing

“It is a tall order, but it’s essential. We have a country that seems to be, even now, unaware of the fact that it is the most incarcerated country in the world. We have a system that makes apartheid look like they weren’t locking up enough people, compared to our standards. I mean it’s pretty ridiculous that we have had a 500 percent increase in incarceration nationally over a period of a few decades, and yet we find ourselves basically not safer, with public schools that are bankrupted, and with no treatment for a lot of the things that go to the roots of criminal conduct, such as addiction or lack of job training.”

On the biggest roadblock he’s faced in his first 100 days

“I mean, no offense to what it is that you do for a living, but I have to tell you I think that media has — and not this media — but I think media in general has been engaging in a sort of a comic book tale ever since the era of William Randolph Hearst and yellow journalism. It’s basically stories about fear, and it’s stories about one side being all good and the other side being all bad, instead of actually getting into the science and the nuance of it. People wanna hear about the science, they wanna hear about the nuance. They know that there are problems when they don’t have public schools in a way that they did have 40 years ago.”

On what he’s asking his prosecutors to do to reduce the number of cases resulting in a plea bargain

“We’re doing quite a few things. There are a lot of cases that in the 1970s, frankly, would not have been prosecuted at all. And so we are trying to go back in that direction. There’s a lot of cases that in the 1970s, if someone was charged, would have been turned into some kind of a diversionary program, meaning that people would have been held accountable, but without a conviction. Everything changed, and somehow we started to consider any dispute to be worthy of criminal prosecution and arrest, and any arrest to be worthy of the highest charges and the highest form of incarceration. And part of what came with that was sentencing guidelines.

“In Pennsylvania, we have sentencing guidelines that have done nothing more than make Pennsylvania even more incarcerated than the rest of the country. We have a 700 percent increase in incarceration in Pennsylvania, and it is because a bunch of legislators — many of whom had never been lawyers, nor had they ever been in criminal justice — were getting votes by preying off of fear and demanding high sentences. They are disastrous. And so I have instructed our prosecutors for cases that are not violent, don’t involve sexual assault, things of that sort, to offer outcomes that are below the bottom end of these sentencing guidelines, which is legally permitted, and it’s an appropriate use of discretion. But it also recognizes that these guidelines are the problem. They are part of why we have so many people in jail, and we don’t have public schools.”

On flipping the script by starting with lower sentences

“Well I wouldn’t say the lowest possible [sentence within Pennsylvania’s guideline], but use your discretion to look at the case as an individual case involving unique people, and figure out what is fair for an offense that is not that serious and is not violent. And what we have seen has been a rapid decline in the population of people in our county jails. Philadelphia not long ago had the most incarcerated county jails of any of the 10 largest cities, and it’s now come down quite a bit. We are down from 8,000 people in our county jails to close to 5,000, which is quite an achievement.”

On his policy goals regarding parole

“Well unfortunately, once again, Pennsylvania is in some ways leading the nation in excessive, long periods of probation and parole. There’s a lot of research that shows that short periods of supervision have benefit, but the longer ones become an infinite series of hurdles that even a law-abiding person, or someone who is reformed, finds hard to overcome.

“For example, if you’re working a job like you’re supposed to, but you have to keep leaving work to go report to a probation and parole officer for years, it’s harder to keep that job. For example, if they keep hitting you for 35 bucks a month, for year after year — you are, in all likelihood if you’re in the criminal justice system, a poor or working-class person — there may come some months when you can’t pay it. All of a sudden, you’re back for a violation hearing, and all the things that you’ve built in terms of job and restoration with your family, things like that, can come to an end when you go back to jail.”

On generational differences among prosecutors

“I think the younger generation actually really understands these issues, and I see that as they come out of law school and as I speak to them … they have grown up with DNA proving that innocent people end up in jail. They’ve grown up with an understanding that mass incarceration is not only a huge problem for a society that claims to be free, but it’s also racist. These are discussions they’ve had, and that they’re willing to have. So I feel like we are actually very strong among a lot of the prosecutors.

“Some of the older ones, I mean let’s be honest, it’s hard to look back on your career and think that you were doing a good thing by stuffing so many people of color in jail. It’s hard to look back on that and say, ‘I guess I dedicated my life to doing something that’s kinda negative.’ But it’s the truth, and it’s something that they have to face, and the ones who are willing to face it, and then move in a positive direction, will do so. And the ones who are not are just gonna double down.”

On whether Philadelphia’s criminal justice overhaul might offer a model for other cities

“I think there’s a very strong national movement in major cities. We see it in Chicago with Kim Foxx, we see it in San Francisco with George Gascón. We see it in Brooklyn with Eric Gonzales, we see in many other locations. There’s a very, very strong movement of progressive DAs who are going the same direction, which is away from mass incarceration toward reinvesting resources that got hijacked for corrections into the things that actually prevent crime.”

On the arrest in Philadelphia of two black men sitting peacefully in a Starbucks

“I know that currently there are investigations going on within the police department about the incident, and potentially even about their own officers. I mean, without talking about the case, I don’t think there’s any question that this is a country where there has been a disparate enforcement of the law — and even social norms — against poor people and against people of color, which are as we all know very overlapping groups. I don’t think there’s any question that the criminal justice system has been racist in various different ways, and has been unfair to the poor, and all of that needs to change. To the extent I can change it, that’s what I wanna do.”

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