Criminal Justice

As the murder rate soars, DA Larry Krasner plays ‘Good cop/good cop’

District Attorney Larry Krasner

District Attorney Larry Krasner Jared Piper/Philadelphia City Council

Larry Krasner made history again in 2021. The incumbent Philadelphia district attorney who mounted a successful outsider campaign for the office in 2017 won reelection by wide margins this year despite a historic increase in murders plaguing the City of Philadelphia.

And he did so despite attacks from critics, including the local police union, which claims Krasner's reformist style of prosecuting and his focus on reducing the number of people incarcerated and on supervision has come at a cost.

To Krasner, however, the crime spike has less to do with his policies, and is instead driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and the absence of programming and crime prevention efforts that ensued following mandated coronavirus shutdowns in 2020.

The disagreement over what is driving the number of homicides in Philadelphia (the city eclipsed 500 murders in late November for the first time since 1990) speaks to a larger debate over the movement to elect more progressive prosecutors – and whether the reforms they’re seeking across the nation are helping or hurting.

Shortly after taking office in 2018, Krasner ended the use of cash bail for low-level offenses, no longer requiring the use of bail for criminal mischief, DUI, forgery, resisting arrest, prostitution, and a slew of drug-related charges. He also set new policies designed to scale back the number of people on probation and parole. And notably, under Krasner, the city’s jail population has continued to drop.

In an interview with City & State, Krasner said his approach to prosecuting is centered around a more “focused” approach to enforcement, “as opposed to this shotgun enforcement, this chainsaw kind of surgery, that's been going on for decades in America – which is why we are the most incarcerated country in the world.”

“We progressive prosecutors are about what works, and that means focused enforcement. It means reform. And it means taking the massive savings that are generated by reducing mass incarceration and reinvesting it into things that actually work, like education, like treatment of different types for addiction, for mental health, like economic opportunity, like investing in communities where there has been a decades, if not centuries-long, disinvestment.”

Krasner expressed a sense of pride over his first-term accomplishments, especially under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said reducing both future years of incarceration and future years of probation and parole, are two significant highlights of his first four years.

“We were able to reduce future years of incarceration by about 50% during a period of 27 months. That is remarkable,” he said. We were able to reduce the future years of supervision in a city that is infamous for excessive supervision on probation and parole. We were able to reduce that by almost two-thirds, once again, in 27 months.”

District Attorney Larry Krasner
District Attorney Larry Krasner (Jared Piper/Philadelphia City Council)

Those figures are due to Krasner’s overhaul of how the DA’s office works. In addition to curbing the use of cash bail, Krasner has exonerated 24 people through his Conviction Integrity Unit since 2018, emphasized the use of diversionary programs and has imposed new policies designed to limit the length of time a person can spend on probation. 

Krasner’s critics, however, have looked to tie the city’s rising murder rate to the progressive DA, pointing to his decision to scale back the use of cash bail, his use of plea deals, as well as his overall outlook on criminal justice.

State Rep. Martina White, who chairs the Philadelphia Republican City Committee, wrote in a September op-ed that the city’s murder rate – which hit 499 murders in 2020 and has surpassed 520 this year – is “a direct result of the failed leadership of Democratic officials at both the local and state level,” adding that “violent criminals are no longer afraid of the consequences of their actions.” 

“This is thanks to the weak, lawless approach taken by Larry Krasner and his failed policies in the District Attorney’s office,” she wrote. “While police continue to do their job and arrest violent criminals for their acts, justice for families impacted by gun violence often stops when the District Attorney’s office either fails to secure convictions – or refuses to even try. Multiple young people have been murdered by perpetrators who should have been behind bars, but were sprung loose due to an open-door bail policy from the D.A.’s office.”

Since Krasner took office in 2018, the city’s murder rate has ticked upward each year: Rising from 353 in 2018, to more than 520 this year. The city started seeing an increase in murders beginning in 2017, a year before Krasner took office. But the rising murder rate, coupled with a yearly increase in withdrawn or dismissed cases since 2015, have given fodder to Krasner’s most vocal critics. 

Among them? The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, the police union representing the city’s police officers. The union backed Krasner’s primary opponent, Carlos Vega, who was fired by Krasner in a purge of DA staffers early on in his first term. 

John McNesby, the president of FOP Lodge 5, criticized Krasner’s use of plea deals and his focus on reducing incarceration. 

“One homicide is too many, but in the 500s is insane. It should not be and that's because of the attitude of the district attorney in letting people out of jail. People know they're not going to go to jail,” McNesby said in an interview. “We have a defense attorney sitting in the district attorney's position right now, and it's not good for the city.”

Former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, now a candidate for governor, has also hit Krasner on his progressive policies as DA. In September 2020, McSwain announced charges against two individuals in Philadelphia for firearms crimes, as well as a murder charge, and looked to tie plea deals made by Krasner’s office to alleged and convicted murders that occured after the deals were made. He said murders in the city are directly linked to Krasner’s policies as DA.

“The staggering homicide and shooting rates in Philadelphia are proof that the district attorney’s radical experiment has failed,” McSwain said at a September 2020 press conference, criticizing what he viewed as “sweetheart plea deals” made by Krasner’s office. “We can draw a straight line from these policies to the carnage on the streets.”

District Attorney Larry Krasner
District Attorney Larry Krasner (House Speaker Bryan Cutler’s office)

But Krasner, who’s heading into his fifth year as district attorney, said increasing rates of murder and gun violence are not issues unique to Philadelphia. 

In a recent interview with The Intercept, Krasner said the pandemic was likely behind the surge in murders, with after-school programs, art programs, housees of worship and recreation centers all closed during the height of government shutdowns. “We saw the complete disruption of normal prevention in society,” he said, adding that the spike in murders is “young people killing young people with guns.”

In his interview with City & State, he pointed to national data from the Boston University School of Public Health’s Research on Innovations for Safety & Equity (RISE) Lab, which found that from 2019 to 2020, the country’s 50 largest cities saw a 42% increase in fatal shootings. Philadelphia’s percentage increase in total murders from 2019 to 2020, Krasner noted, was 40% – below the national rate.

Krasner said the jump in withdrawn or dismissed gun cases since 2015 is due to a shift in how police make stops in the city, coupled with recent court decisions centered around search and seizure. He said Philadelphia police have been making more car stops than pedestrian stops, which are harder to prove in court. “It is much more difficult for a prosecutor to establish which, if any, of those people in the car had actual knowledge of that gun and have an intent to exercise control over it, which is what the law requires.” 

Krasner also shot back at those who think he doesn’t take a hard enough stance on gun possession cases, adding that with those cases, “there is no magic predictor” of whether someone arrested for a gun possession crime will go on to commit more violent offenses. According to data from Krasner’s office, the Philadelphia Police Department and the First Judicial District, just 16 of 1,063 people convicted for possession without a license from January 2015 to March 2021 were later arrested for a shooting. “I consider the illegal possession of a firearm to be a serious offense,” Krasner said. “But I do not consider it to be more serious than shooting people and killing people with guns.”

As for criticisms against him, Krasner said it all comes down to one thing: politics.

“We are back to our usual cheap politics, which is a bunch of Republicans, a bunch of conservatives, a bunch of the worst kind of centrist Democrats, [having] an allergy to data. They have an allergy to studies. They have an allergy to truth. What they love is rhetoric.”

Whether it be rhetoric or legitimate criticisms, progressive prosecutors across the U.S. have found success despite efforts to defeat, or even recall, them. In Chicago, Kim Foxx won reelection as Cook County State's Attorney last year, and this year, an attempt to recall Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón failed to earn enough signatures to move forward. 

And in Philadelphia, voters signaled this year by 30-point and 40-point margins that they wanted to give Krasner another four years to achieve his second-term goals: taking advantage of alternatives to prosecution, tackling gun violence from a public-health perspective and fighting for an end to cash bail. 

And in Krasner’s eyes, voters have given him a mandate to do just that. “This is what people actually want in the United States,” he said. “The mainstream Democratic Party has not figured it out, but this is actually what Americans want.”