Take Note: Philly D.A. Larry Krasner On Reforming The Criminal Justice System From Within

Apr 17, 2021

Larry Krasner
Credit Larry Krasner

On this Take Note, we’re going to hear an interview with Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner.

 

Before he was elected to be Philadelphia’s chief prosecutor in 2017, Krasner was a criminal defense attorney specializing in civil rights. He was elected on the promise he’d reform the criminal justice system from within and reduce incarceration.

 

Krasner is the subject of an 8-episode PBS Independent Lens documentary called “Philly D.A.” It debuts on WPSU-TV April 20 at 9 p.m. Krasner’s new autobiography comes out the same day. It’s titled “For the People: A Story of Justice and Power.” 

 

This interview is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. The Institute’s Jenna Spinelle interviewed Krasner.

Here's the interview:

Jenna Spinelle

Larry Krasner, thanks for joining us today.

Larry Krasner

Delighted to be here.

Jenna Spinelle

So I want to just dive right in with the big question before we get to some of your specific work as Philadelphia D.A. Can you talk a little bit about what role you see the criminal justice system playing in our society, our democracy?

Larry Krasner

Well, you know, I think the most important role that a prosecutor's office should play is to try to prevent the next victimization, the next harm to someone. The criminal justice system itself should play a role of making society better, not worse and preventing crime, not encouraging it. And frankly, in many ways, it has failed.

Jenna Spinelle

Yeah. And so how have you put that philosophy into practice over the past several years during your tenure?

Larry Krasner

So let me see, we have been here since the beginning of ‘18. And we have cut the future years of incarceration being generated by the courts in half. We have cut the future years of parole and probation, something that was truly overdone, in Philly by about two-thirds. We have instituted units that do special work. One of them protects immigrants as victims, as witnesses, and makes sure they're treated equally as defendants. Another protects workers, who often have crimes committed against them. Another one is our conviction integrity unit, which at this point, has exonerated 18 people on 19 different cases. People who were, you know, either clearly, absolutely without question completely innocent. Or people as to whom there's so much doubt at this point that their remaining a jail simply cannot be justified. Often this was due to hiding evidence, coercing confessions, mistaken identifications. But, you know, it's just unacceptable to have a system that is inaccurate like that. And we've applied the same approach to unsolved crimes. We’ve brought some very old cold cases, including recently convicting a rapist based exclusively on DNA. His victim was unable to identify her attacker, but DNA, told the tale with a rape kit that was not solved for many years and fortunately allowed a jury to see the truth about what happened. So those are some of the things that we have done.

Jenna Spinelle

So the first episode of the “Philly D.A.” series covers a lot about your campaign in 2017. And there was a lot of momentum around Democrats. Scholars can still argue about how big or how blue the wave was, but there certainly was some momentum there. What role do you think that momentum played in in your election? And was it perhaps part of your decision to run?

Larry Krasner

You know, it's a very interesting question. The only election that counts in Philly is the Democratic primary, because seven out of every eight voters are Democrats. So a blue wave, if it did anything, it simply drove out more Democratic votes. That doesn't really answer the question of why we ended up with twice as with basically more than the next two finishers combined. 

There were a lot of people in the race, almost seven people in the race at different times. You know, I think it had probably some effect. But if you actually look at Pittsburgh, the other big city in Pennsylvania, there seems to have been a minimal minimum bump in terms of an increase in voters. So something was happening in Philly, that was definitely interesting. And I believe that when you look and you see that there were 50,000 unexpected, unlikely votes. That turned out in the primary in 2017, the one that determined the outcome. When you see that and you put it in the context of the entire state of Pennsylvania was lost to Donald Trump by 40,000 votes. We're talking about turning out in a single city, the biggest city but a single city, more than enough votes to reverse the outcome of the Trump election. 

So something did get people out. Perhaps some of it was Trump, perhaps some of it was that there were some ideas about prosecution being put out there that were unlike any ideas that any of the traditional prosecutors have promoted in my entire career in Philadelphia. Yes, some of these ideas have been successful, or similar ideas in other cities, you know, Aramis Ayala, for example, in Orlando, Kim Foxx in Chicago, or Marilyn Mosby in Baltimore. These are some examples of people who won before our election with similarities in their platforms. 

Larry Krasner

But I can tell you this, there is no question that there were people who never voted before or had no interested in voting because they were so alienated from traditional prosecution and the mainstream machine Democratic Party, but they came out for this because it meant something to their lives and to their communities.

Jenna Spinelle

Can you talk a little bit more about who made up the kind of coalition you put together and how you went about reaching those folks during the campaign?

Larry Krasner

Well, ultimately, mass incarceration made up the coalition because, you know, its crushing weight, affected so many people. And you didn't have to be directly affected to have a close friend in high school who ended up with a felony conviction sitting in jail for two years and have their future destroyed over you know, a drug offense. You could have a nephew or cousin, a friend from high school and ex-boyfriend or girlfriend. It became so heavy to be the most incarcerated country in the world, that everybody knew somebody who had been adversely affected by it. That's what really made the coalition. 

Who were they? My biggest voter was a 60-year-old African American woman. Black voters in general were big supporters. Millennials of all backgrounds, big supporters. And working-class white people, if somebody banged on the door and talked to them, were big, big supporters. And I say that because we looked at the areas where working-class white voters did not have someone engaged in a conversation with them. We did more than twice as well. Where there's a conversation and what we found out in those conversations is, you know, maybe they didn't agree with me on the death penalty, or something like that. But oh, boy, did they agree that addiction should be dealt with by treatment. Oh, boy, did they agree there needed to be more money in public schools. Because it was affecting their lives in such an important way. That really was the handholding going on here, some very interesting, different groups. And when that difference comes together, that is called power.

Jenna Spinelle

The thing about democracy is, you know, “we the people” can sometimes be a little bit fickle. I don't know if this is because, you know, we're not used to politicians actually doing what they say they're going to do. So when they actually do those things maybe people kind of don't expect the results, or they're like, “Oh, wait a second. This is what actually happens?” 

I'm wondering if you have encountered that sentiment or how you think about that, about any kind of backlash to you actually putting into place the policies that you said you were going to when you were running?

Larry Krasner

A lot of people don't like politicians for good reason. It's because they say two things at the same time. Typical politician B.S. is, “Yes, I'm with you. But I'm not a legislator. So I support what you want with gun control. But I can't make any of that happen.” Like that kind of nonsense. Or they flat out tell different things in different rooms. 

But of course, their favorite thing is what they call the pivot, meaning whatever you asked, I sure as hell am not going to answer. I'll tell you about my pet chinchilla. I'll tell you about the stock market. But I am not talking about the question you just asked. And I mean, it's so gross that a lot of political operatives are proud, proud of their candidates’ capacity to quote, pivot, unquote, to like a shortlist of talking points about how they grew up on a farm, or they rescued a cat, or whatever it may be. The typical tail of glory and struggle in some sort of fictionalized American world. Yeah, I mean, I don't like politicians very much. I might not even like myself in a while. We'll see. It's only been three years so I'm not that bad yet. But I'm not real crazy about politicians, either. 

There’s something happening in this country. It's not just around criminal justice. There's something happening around democracy. I mean, look at the Bernie [Sanders] phenomenon. Can we all agree he doesn't wear a perfectly tailored suit? Can we agree on that? Can we agree that necessarily most likely person to basically be at least in a prior election, the favorite of young Democrats in every single state, right. 

But there's a genuineness to people like him, like Elizabeth Warren. And of course, there are many, many others, including AOC, and the squad and so on, but there's a genuineness there. There's something outside of politics. There's a kind of anti-politics there that is very exciting to voters who are sick of the Richard Nixons and the Ronald Reagans and, oh, Bushes they're sick of that.

Jenna Spinelle

So you also said, I believe in the first episode of the “Philly D.A.” series, that you were not good at retail politics. The going to have lunch with people to kind of explain your positions. It was too time consuming. You had a lot of stuff you wanted to do in a short amount of time. I'm wondering if you have evolved in that thinking over the course of the past couple of years and how you think about that retail politics today?

Larry Krasner

I am happy to admit it is indeed not one of my strengths. I came out of law school, I became a public defender, then I ran my own law firm for many years. And every day started with checklists of things to get done. High on that checklist was never “call somebody and check in,” “call somebody and ask how their duck hunting went” or what's going on with their pet cat who had an operation. That was never on my list. So I was a very task-oriented person. It's not a perfect way to be when you are an elected. It might be a perfect way to be a candidate, but it's not necessarily a perfect way to be once you are an elected because there are some expectations from people who do embrace the political life, who do embrace a traditional kind of politics. 

My favorite course in college was animal behavior because you got to learn amazing things about like what two different baboons did out on the Serengeti plain. And the gestures and the nods and the facial expressions they would make to communicate with each other. Well, animal behavior applies in politics too. And there is something about calling to check in that I certainly didn't understand at the beginning. Just as Bryan Stevenson says you're not the worst thing you've ever done and we can all evolve, hopefully I can evolve, too. I checked in just the other day. It wasn't so painful. So like it or not, even though I'm a little bit of anti-politician, I have to adapt. And I have been adapting. And we'll try to do better in the second term.

Jenna Spinelle

Yeah. And I mean there's also this sense of you're coming into this very large, established institution and trying to make some pretty drastic change in a short amount of time. There was another conversation in the “Philly D.A.” series. I believe it was two women on your juvenile team, where one was fairly new, had come in during the start of your tenure. One had been there for 10 years or so. And the kind of elder stateswoman of the two was saying, “Well, sometimes need to have a little empathy for these folks. I know you think that they've been doing everything wrong for 25 years, but in their mind they think they've been doing it right.” So how have you been kind of negotiating that with your staff as you've been trying to push for all these policy changes over the past three years?

Larry Krasner

It's an important point because the very nature of change in an institutional environment is that the institutionalists, the old guard, take it as a reproach. I had this discussion with a pretty wonderful judge by the name of Ted McKee, who is an African American man. He was a prosecutor and then he became a state court judge and then he became actually a very, very high-level judge. He became the chief judge of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, meaning is one notch below the U.S. Supreme Court. But he's a very, very thoughtful guy, pretty liberal guy. He's sworn in now two classes of our young attorneys.

And he said there are things I believed all those years when I was sentencing people that were helpful for them, like long paroles and long probations. And it's hard to look back -- he's now in his 70s -- it's hard to look back and realize that I was doing things I believed were good all those years but they turned out not to be so good. Well, he's a pretty amazing person. I mean I think he can reflect on his life and admit that his version of public service, through no ill intent, kind of went awry. Not everybody can do that. 

There are just a lot of people who were trained a certain way. They were hired because of certain attitudes. That attitude was the only attitude that was allowed in an office. They were promoted and given raises on that basis. And you're what? Now somebody who wasn't even one of us is going to come into our place and tell us that there's a different way to do things? The simple change itself, never mind any sort of rhetoric around, the simple change itself can be taken as a reproach. 

So it plays out in different ways. Some people really can reflect on it at least over a period of time with education –and we provide a lot of education -- and they can be willing to follow your plan even if they don't agree with you. Other people are so dangerous to the institution because they have a lot of gravitas and they're never going to do what they're told, that they have to go. And then there are people who can do it but they're uncomfortable with it. So they kind of find their way out the door. It's as if they're classical music fans at Woodstock and Jimi Hendrix is kind of loud so they just feel better somewhere else. We've seen some of that go on. 

But this is how culture change happens and then of course the real thing that's happened here is we made recruiting our top priority. We have now hired most of the 300 attorneys in the office. So you get to the point where the naysayers huddle in offices and close the door so they won't be heard in the hallways and the rest of us are in the hallways. That's the opposite of when we came in. When we first came in, we were all having huddle in the offices while the naysayers populated the hallways. That change happens over time. It's constructive. It's what it has to be.

Jenna Spinelle

Criminal justice is not an island in that it's connected to many other parts of our social system and the institutions that support it and you've certainly made changes as far as things like cash bail, for example. But you also have said that it's not enough just to get rid of cash bail. People have to have jobs and job training and all these sorts of things. And I wonder if some of the other parts of the system haven't held up their end of the bargain, or maybe just haven't caught up yet again to that question of change and the rate of change?

Larry Krasner

Well, no, they haven't. The fascinating thing to me about this movement, and again, I consider myself not a leader, just a technician for a movement. That's what lawyers do for movements, they're technicians, they don't lead it. Study any movement, that's really what they are, that's what they should be. They need to get in the back, not in the front, right. 

But I think that the most important thing to realize is that it's almost like looking through a piece of dirty glass. All the people out there waving back or saying, “Come on, now. This is why we elected you keep your promises do what we asked you to do.” But the glass is kind of… could use a cleaning because the institutions don't want that. Everybody knows this is happening, except the institutions and the institutionalists. What they have not figured out yet is all of their power comes from the people. And in the same way the people said, “All right, we found a spot in criminal justice that has a bunch of power. So now we're gonna take it back and make it work for us. Let's go hire, or elect, a bunch of progressive DAs.” And by the way, right now in the US 10% of all voters have elected a progressive prosecutor and reelected them in many instances. I mean, this thing is spreading like wildfire, right? 

What they haven't figured out is this is about to happen to them in the courts. Most judges are elected. And with data’s new availability to look closely at a particular judge and that judge’s practices, they will no longer be anonymous, nor should they be. They will be accountable. If judge so-and-so just can't help but give all Black defendants twice as much time as white ones for the same offenses with the same prior records, then we have something to talk about, don't we? 

What's happened with progressive prosecutors is going to go to its to a 2.0. And the 2.0 is going to be mayors who pick police commissioners. And they're going to want mayors who are going to pick the right kind of police commissioners. It's going to be mayors who have to negotiate with police unions. And they're going to want mayors who are going to stand up to them because they believe in police accountability, they believe in equal justice. But it's also going to be the judiciary. And the judiciary not only have power in a courtroom, they often have powers over things like the probation department, the parole department, which have such a profound impact on mass incarceration. It's just a feeder, back to mass incarceration. 

2.0 is coming. 3.0 is coming. The voters have been able to see how much progress they can make by electing traditional prosecutors. That will continue. But the next step is going to be these voters who are so encouraged by the progress they've made in a short period of time by electing progressive prosecutors, are going to apply the same model to these institutions. And then you will see sweeping change in an even shorter period of time. 

Jenna Spinelle

At the same time, I wonder if there's also the quicker some of these changes happen, the more this momentum builds, does it create even more of an expectation among the activist community and you more opportunities to say, “Oh, no, wait a second, you haven't done enough.” And that kind of comes back to bite you in the end? It's sort of like a damned if you do, damned if you don't. There's some people that might say, “Well, you've done way too much.” And some people that say, “Well, actually, no, you haven't done enough.” And you have to try to find that balance between the two?

Larry Krasner

Well, I say this with respect to both sides, I hear that all the time. We even hear it, for example, on an individual issue, an individual case. I actually think they should put some kind of calendar down in front of my office so that the protesters who think I'm incredibly unfair to them don't trip over the protesters who think I'm totally unfair the opposite way, right. And I'm not kidding, like this goes on all the time. Today, “you're in the bag with.” Tomorrow, “you’re utterly opposed with.” It is in the nature of activists and activism that they speak with what a lot of clergy refer to as a “prophetic voice.” Meaning they can speak with a clarity and absolutism that is different than what it means to be sitting in a seat and have to make decisions about all kinds of cases that don't fit some sort of easy stereotype or easy tale. 

One of the beauties of my 30 years in criminal law before I became chief prosecutor is you get the best stories. And you get the best stories because people are so diverse. Every story has some kind of crazy twist and turn. And the reality is that the prophetic voice is not so good at that. The prophetic voice is good saying, “Eliminate all jails and prisons. Get rid of them all. Bulldoze them.” Right?

Okay, well did the prophetic voice anticipate Charles Manson? Did it anticipate Ted Bundy? “Let out everyone before trial. They're innocent until proven guilty.” The law does say they are to be presumed innocent, but the law also says, if you're really dangerous, you might have to sit in jail. Because if we let Ted Bundy out and we let him go home, he's gonna kill a bunch more blonde women who look similar, right? That's a bad thing. We don't want them to die because Ted went home. 

So this to me is the fundamental difference. And I say this with great respect for activists. I've represented activists for free, almost always free, for 25 years. It was my professional hobby. But they get to speak with a prophetic voice. They get to speak with an aspirational voice. Sometimes on their list of demands, a progressive prosecutor is going to do seven of those things, but can't do the other three. Or doesn't even agree on the other three. Sometimes that's how it is. 

And the reaction just because of what they're used to -- which is not even being in a room to talk to that prosecutor, being outside of the building banging their head against the building -- the reaction is going to be, “What, only seven on my list of 10 demands?” Well, it used to be zero on your list of 10 demands, right. And so we have to as people who are in elected office -- even if we are no fans of politicians, no fans of ourself becoming politicians -- we have to respond to everyone who put us there, and everyone who did not put us there. We have to think not just about the people who are in the courtroom, we have to also think about the people who are out of the courtroom, have no involvement in the courts and how they are affected by what we are doing. And that means we don't just answer to a single group or a single constituency, we answer to a lot of different ones. Hopefully, we do so without compromising our principles. But hopefully, we also do so without compromising justice in any individual case. 

The prophetic voice is not about an individual case, in the same way a mandatory minimum -- and I hate mandatory minimums -- is not about an individual case. The job of being a prosecutor means you have to pursue individual justice in each case, with all of its messiness, all of its delving into things we might want to talk about -- mental illness, background, specifics of the facts, blah, blah, blah. It's just, it's a different place to be.

Jenna Spinelle

Yeah, and that's also hard to put on a poster or put on a campaign slogan when you're trying to get ready to run for reelection.

Larry Krasner

Here's my slogan: “It's complicated.” I mean, people ain't voting for “it’s complicated.” They want to hear it’s simple.

Jenna Spinelle

So we are recording this as the trial for Dereck Chauvin is underway. And I'm wondering how George Floyd's death and the others that we saw over the course of the summer of 2020, how they’ve impacted the dynamic you were just describing as far as activists and the broader context that you operate in?

Larry Krasner

Well, you know it, we've had many reckonings over the years. I'm 60, I can say these things. Rodney King was a reckoning. There have been many other reckonings over the years in the killing of Black and brown men, by police officers. But this is in many ways the most impactful and compelling, simply because the video is so long. And it's so painful. And it is continuous. 

And the murder, which is what it is, is so obvious, that it doesn't just shine a light on that case, it shines a light on hundreds of years. I think, you know, obviously what happened to Mr. Floyd is a horrifying murder. But I think it is constructive in the history of this country, to have that reckoning to face up to it. To deal with it. You know, a lot of us are very concerned about what could happen if there is an acquittal, which in my opinion, would be a terrible injustice. You know, I just gave you a campaign slogan: it's complicated. George, Floyd's not complicated. Get your knee off of his neck. It's really not that complicated. So I do think there could be a pretty swift and angry and destructive reaction. I pray there won't be, but I think there could be. I can only hope that the weight, the impact, the power of that video, will be so compelling that there will be some measure of justice coming out of that case.

Jenna Spinelle

So you mentioned Chicago earlier. And I know that the state of Illinois passed what seems to be a fairly comprehensive police reform bill at the beginning of this year. As we think about the other elections that are going to be happening in Pennsylvania next fall: new governor, new senator. A bigger changeover as far as that the state's politics go. Do you see any opportunities for larger-scale reforms like that at the state level, similar to what happened has happened in Illinois?

Larry Krasner

There is great potential but it requires people to do a thing, which is vote in more massive numbers than they ever have in the past. The Republican Party in the United States is hell bent on taking away Democratic votes, especially Black and brown Democratic votes, because that's where they see the increase is trending across the nation. They are intent on taking away marginalized votes. And they could win this. This could really be a country where we have minority rule, meaning Republican rule over a country that is Democratic. They're doing a good job so far, and they've done a hell of a good job in Pennsylvania. We need to have massive, massive turnout of voters. We need every 18-year-old to be tugged by the elbow to go register, and then vote. And we need everybody helping everybody else vote.

There have been times in the history of this country when the turnout was so much higher than it is these days. And if we have that, it means everything you want. It means another Republican United States Senator in Pennsylvania. It means a governor who is a Democrat, hopefully a progressive Democrat who cares about the big cities, including Philadelphia. It means a legislature where the Democrats are dominant. And we can have some real regulation of guns that can take a bite out of gun violence. It means reversing all kinds of crazy gerrymandering. It just means almost everything you can imagine in terms of criminal justice reform, and in terms of routing resources to where they should have gotten in first place for things that prevent crime.

Jenna Spinelle

Yeah, so maybe this will be a good place to wrap things up. As we head toward the fall's election, with all of these barriers you've just described, how is your team thinking about how to overcome those things? Not just to reelect you, but to help advance small “d” democracy more broadly?

Larry Krasner

Well, my election is actually May the 18th, because in Philly, if you win the Democratic primary it is over. And so that's where the contest is. I find myself against a… against someone who is supported by a police union that has twice endorsed Donald Trump, who is funded through a PAC by a guy who gave Donald Trump $25 million, and has already put half a million dollars into the PAC of my opponent. So make no mistake, you know, the coup is still on in terms of one party trying to seize the Capitol and stop your votes from being counted. 

And the Trump era is not over. It needs to be stomped out, frankly. What that means in May in Philly, I hope, is we'll see a ton of voters. We'll see a ton of volunteers. We will not just see a victory, we'll see a mandate. Because with a mandate, we can say a lot. But it is also important, even if I'm not the issue, if our candidacy is not the issue, it's important to have this kind of huge turnout in the primaries across the state. Because that is how Stacey Abrams built Georgia's victory. If you turn out big with people, voting is habitual. They'll turn out big again. And they'll turn out bigger again. And they will teach their friends and their younger people who are not ready to vote yet, they'll teach them to do it. So it is incredibly important that we do that. And I think if we do that, we can have pretty much everything we want politically in terms of change.

Jenna Spinelle

Well, we will leave it there. Larry Krasner, thanks so much for your time today.

Larry Krasner

Thank you.