Running to change how Philadelphia does justice

District Attorney Larry Krasner and criminal justice advocates have pushed to have jails dramatically depopulated to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Charles Mostoller

At first, it’s a bit hard to understand why Larry Krasner wants to be district attorney. For years, the defense lawyer has been trashing almost everything about how the Philadelphia DA’s office does business.

Krasner blames the DA’s office for a world of social ills, from what he called “excessive” sentences that cost $40,000 a year to keep inmates in “crime school” to police actions that “sweep up young black or brown men in poor neighborhoods and treat them all like serious criminals.”

He described a client who became a drug addict while serving 12 years for a robbery: “We spent half a million dollars on this guy, and now he’s still addicted to drugs, years later. That’s 12 years that we weren’t paying a public school teacher, when the appropriate sentence was more like five years.”

Krasner fumes about prosecutors’ use of a cash-bail system that can keep poor people facing charges locked up for months or years before trial, the low funding for fingerprint and DNA evidence analysis,and failures to provide potentially exculpatory evidence to defendants under the constitutional requirement set by the Supreme Court in 1963 in the Brady v. Maryland case.

“This office has paid lip service, at best, to Brady … and they do it because of a culture that flows from the Rizzo era and has been carried forward by this District Attorney’s office ever since,” he said.

Krasner’s unorthodox views are getting strong support from some of Philadelphia’s most outspoken critics of the criminal justice system.

“He has fought and continues to fight the racist nonstop police brutality epidemic,” fellow attorney Michael Coard wrote of Krasner in a column for thePhiladelphia Tribune. “He is the blackest white guy I know.”

Blacks Live Matter organizer Asa Khalif is personally endorsing Krasner. He said he wants a DA who will will take a stand against police misconduct.

“Larry’s going to drop the hammer on these corrupt officers,” Khalif said. “I don’t care what color the man is. I judge him by his record.”

But Krasner thinks most Philadelphia cops’ values aren’t that far off from the higher standards demanded by groups like Black Lives Matter.

“The vast majority of police want to see police officers who do the wrong thing, whether it’s corruption or physical abuse, properly disciplined, reprimanded, and when necessary fired or charged,” he said.

Rumors are already swirling that billionaire George Soros is looking to invest in the racefor the office current DA Seth Williams will soon vacate. Soros has alreadyfunded criminal justice reforms and seven DA’s races around the country, andsome think Krasner could get his support, but that remains a rumor, with neither Krasner nor Soros’ representatives commenting.

Either way, Krasner’s stance is likely to remain the farthest to the left in the increasingly crowded DA’s race, as he touts his first priority not as locking criminals up but decarceration.

“You have to look at the collateral consequences of incarceration,” he said. “Will it make this person chronically unemployed and drive them toward crime, as opposed to away from crime?”

To people who see the DA as Philly’s top enforcer, that attitude might seem strange. But to Krasner, it makes perfect sense.

“For 30 years, I’ve watched this DA’s office go in the wrong direction,” Krasner said. “I’ve done about as much as I can do from the outside to push for justice. … We’re the most incarcerated nation in the world. It’s time to go in a different direction.”

A storied career

Krasner first made waves in Philadelphia in the ’90s as a member of the Police Advisory Panel reviewing a 1991 attack byPhilly cops on nonviolent protesters with ACT UP, an AIDS advocacy group. More recently, he helped winacquittals for 10 Black Lives Matter-affiliated protesterswhose demonstration against former police Commissioner Charles Ramsey in a recreation center turned into a scuffle.

He represented protesters at the Republican National Convention and last summer’s Democratic National Convention and he won the acquittal ofAskia Sabur, who was charged with assaulting police. Viral cellphone video showed officers whipping him with batons while he sat on the sidewalk.

The contenders

Numerous candidates besides Krasner have entered the race as Democratic candidates for DAin the upcoming May primary. DA Seth Williams announced earlier this month that he won’t seek reelection to a third term.

Teresa Carr Deni – former Municipal Court judge

Tariq El-Shabazz – former first assistant district attorney

Joe Khan – former federal prosecutor

Richard Negrin – former city managing director

Michael Untermeyer – former prosecutor

The Democratic candidate who wins the May primary will face Republican and former prosecutor Beth Grossman in November.

More from our Sister Sites