In a district attorney’s race notable for the striking number of similarities between the candidates looking to succeed Seth Williams as Philadelphia’s top elected law-enforcement official, Larry Krasner stands out if for no other reason than he is the only candidate thus far to compare himself to former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Granted, he did so only as a way to explain his relatively late entry into the Democratic primary – he joined the fray in February, two days before Williams announced he wouldn’t be running for re-election, and just three months before the May 16 primary.
“There was another candidate who, if she entered the race, I would have supported: Keir Bradford Grey,” Philadelphia's chief public defender, he explained. “Bernie said the same thing about Elizabeth Warren. He tried to get her to run and she wouldn’t. I didn’t try to get Keir to run, but if she had, I would have been happy to stay out.”
Whether due to his entry or to a sea change in attitudes and focus groups, there has been a noticeable progressive shift to the race – something that Krasner believes plays to his strength as a civil rights and criminal defense lawyer with three decades’ experience on the other side of the bar.
The St. Louis native – his family moved to Philadelphia when he was 8 years old – has burnished his defender’s reputation since graduating from Stanford Law School in 1987. Among his clients: protesters arrested at the 2000 Republican National Convention and the 2016 Democratic National Convention, as well as Black Lives Matters activists and former Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy in a nightclub brawl last year.
One of Krasner’s most high-profile positions – his vocal stance against the death penalty – was established even earlier than law school.
“ I ended up on a death penalty jury right out of college,” he recalled in an interview. “They didn’t know what they were getting. My experience on that jury had a lot to do with my views on the death penalty. When they asked me what my position was, I was 22; I thought it should be reserved only for things like the assassination of a president.”
In law school, he read extensively about the subject, initially as research for a moot court on the death penalty for juveniles, which cemented his opposition to the practice. “The more I read, the more apparent it became that it was terrible social policy – and also terribly immoral,” he said.
While a district attorney can’t abolish the death penalty, Krasner is eager to use the post to tackle a host of other justice system issues, including tackling exploding prison populations through decarceration.
“Decarceration is a funny word,” he said. “Progressives love the word and conservatives are scared of it – unless you happen to be the Koch brothers, who are in favor of it as well” – likely the only thing the progressive civil rights attorney and right-wing billionaires have in common. “What we are really talking about is over-incarceration. We are talking about the fact that there are too many people in jail and we continue to put people in jail at a rate that is far too high. We are the most incarcerated nation in the world: five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the inmates in the world. In Philly, the cradle of freedom itself, we find that people are being held in State Road (prison facilities) four times as long as they are held in other major cities.”
One of the ways Krasner would reduce the numbers of people behind bars is through bail reform, another hot-button topic among the candidates. His approach involves implementing what he calls “sweat bail” to replace cash bail when possible for those who can’t afford to secure their release in legal tender.
“The notion is that you can be poor, but as long as you are going to show up in court and you pay your debt to society when you get out, by reporting to a grass-roots organization or to a mental health center – if that’s what you need – that is a viable form of bail,” he elucidated of the system, which is currently in use in Washington, D.C. “It’s far more constructive than what we have now. The beauty of the system is that it allows you to see whether or not the people who have relatively non-serious offense are getting back on the right track – before you put a felony conviction on their back.”
Krasner is also a proponent of declination – the rate at which the District Attorney’s Office declines to prosecute cases, which he said hovers around 1 percent in Philadelphia, as compared to 15 to 20 percent in other jurisdictions in the state.
“I can tell you from practicing in other counties and other states: There are a lot of jurisdictions where they don’t arrest and charge after the initial police encounter,” he said. “They do interviews, they compile information – there is a careful look at the case to see if it is even worth pursuing, as opposed to dealing with it in other ways. There are, frankly, many cases in Philadelphia that are unworthy of prosecution because the offenses are so minor they are not worth the investment of resources. There are also a lot of cases where the investigation is wholly inadequate.”
This imbalance – and, to his mind – waste of time, resources and people is due in no small part to a corrosive culture of competition at the DAO, which he refers to as much the same as when he started there in 1987.
The prevailing work environment at the DAO, he asserted, “largely disregards its ethical obligation to seek justice in favor of a hyper-competitive attitude, almost a sports mentality where the goal is to find the heaviest charge possible, to bring that and to get the highest conviction possible. Once you have that, then it’s to get the highest sentence possible. And that is how you make your bones for the supervisors: Because you were able to turn this case into something that looks really serious. That has nothing to do with seeking justice.”
To change that culture, and to improve the morale of a staff that has had to deal with a cavalcade of demoralizing news about Williams, culminating in his indictment on Tuesday, Krasner said he would start out by letting “younger, more sensible attorneys and the older, more progressive attorneys know that the district attorney has their back and the policy is going to change.”
Like others in the race, Krasner seems to relish the opportunity to battle the Trump administration in court on known flashpoints like sanctuary city legislation and civil asset forfeiture, as well as lesser-known challenges, like threats to the region resulting from defunding the Environmental Protection Agency – something he emphasized would be just one of the areas of concern he would be prepared to defend. “It could mean that when you have a president who guts the EPA, that you have a district attorney who will engage in pollution prosecution,” he said.
Change and confrontation, and an oft-stated willingness to speak truth to power have led this perpetual outsider to this inflection point in both his and the city’s trajectory. “For 30 years, I have been going in the right direction, arguing against mass incarceration, standing up for the rights of individuals, for constitutional rights,” he said. “And for 30 years, I have watched the DA’s office and, essentially the other candidates, go in the opposite direction. All of a sudden, it turns out that everyone in the race is a progressive! They may have spent their entire careers going in the opposite way, but now they all believe in free speech, in process. And they all know that over-incarceration is wrong, as is cash bail. All I can say is, I’m glad I was so persuasive.”