Never in the history in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office has the DA opened his administration and faced off with a bunch of angry prison reform, black liberation activists, Black Lives Matter activists, and activists of all stripes who were carrying pitchforks and ready for a fight. But Krasner did just that when he held his town hall meeting.
It took a giant to walk into that room. As a seasoned defense lawyer, Krasner likely knew what he was about to face off with. And with no obligation, no precedent and no promise to hold this sudden town hall, wherein he allowed people to publicly voice their frustrations, he must have known the tensions would run high.
Krasner entered the room wearing spectacles. A 57 year old man, he was an unassuming presence met with an angry crowd. Particularly after Seth Williams, the crowd was feeling angry and betrayed.
DA’s in Philadelphia don’t historically enter into office and hold these public town halls. He was inviting the torch carrying, pitch fork-carrying angry mob of people into his space. And as a white guy, spectacled and suited up looking the quintessential part of a lawyer, the room was immediately suspicious. That white guy in the suit, to the Black Lives Matter and black liberation crowd, could not possibly understand.
One of the first speakers to stand and ask Krasner a question was an African American Grandmother, her tone was harsh and full of rage. She had likely been a voter of the now incarcerated former Philly DA Seth Williams. Her hopes had been doused. What did she want to say to Krasner in her fit of rage with her pitchfork, among a crowd of activists?
This elderly grandmother’s tone was accusatory, angry and emotional: You still have people who is [sic] inside these prisons that is not getting proper healthcare, that are dying inside them [sic] prisons, that come from Philadelphia, that was sent there by Philadelphia District Attorneys. CITATION
In the full, non-edited version of the press conference, Krasner pauses before many answers. Seemingly the weight of the entire remorseful community of activists is suddenly upon his shoulders.
He pauses, seeming to breathe and think for a moment before each answer. He understands he is trying to communicate with a room full of people who are feeling betrayed and enraged by their criminal justice system and the actors like Seth Williams who made false promises and never delivered.
He responds: There has not been adequate medical access for people in state prisons or county prisons for all of time and memorial. The reality is that is completely wrong.
When Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner first entered his name into the race, it was at the last minute, and it came alongside many other big names. He called himself “unelectable” in public news outlets, and when he won, he seemed surprised, but humbled. He insisted that the people of Philadelphia didn’t vote for him, a white man in a suit who had never prosecuted a criminal case, but instead for a “movement.” Yes, that was the word he used for it.
Vice news asked him if he ever thought he would be the district attorney of Philadelphia, and Krasner responded “No,” explaining he had done everything he possibly could during his career not to be elected, including suing the Philadelphia police over 75 times on civil rights violations, wrongful search with no probable cause, unnecessary violence, etc. When Larry ran for election the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) was not standing behind him. This was a ruckus-raising hellion, who might look innocent enough in his drab suits and thick glasses. But once Krasner starts speaking, you start to understand why people are drawn to him. He is sincere, magnetic, and a cultivated defense lawyer. He understands what it is to be on the other side of the “v” (or the Defendant – Commonwealth versus Defendant).And it is true, Larry Krasner has never prosecuted a single case in his life.
But despite his education and his position as a well-respected white collar criminal defense attorney, Krasner has a streak of liberalism. When the Occupy movement was happening, and tents were set up outside of Philadelphia City Hall, Krasner walked through on his lunch break asking questions. He empathized, unlike his predecessor, and Krasner was able to envision the complicated world outside his own comfort and privilege, and he felt an intrinsic duty to act and to help. It’s a compulsion that has never left him or be diminished as he now holds the very powerful elected office.
Philadelphia is scrappy, resourceful, rugged and in-your-face. Strangers will swear at you on the street, arguments ensue in the line at a grocery store. Eagles fans are known to be some of the most violent football fans in the country. There is a scrappiness to Philadelphia that is both loveable, but can break your spirit all at once if you are having a bad day. My step-Mom is from Philadelphia. When I moved there, she gave me this advice: “when you walk down the street, walk confidently. When you speak, match their volume and tone of their voice. Don’t give them an inch.” There is a peculiar roughness to Philadelphia, and if you spend a couple years there, that vulgarity and scrappiness somehow becomes endearing.
Philadelphia prosecutors inherited this cultural mindset. They are known for being the “tough on crime” prosecutors who “don’t take any sh*t,” and fight like rabid dogs in court; who will tell off witnesses and talk back to Judges. They are the worst breed. That culture was cultivated not only by the city social dynamic, but also by generations and generations of prosecutors who were taught how to act in court.
Krasner beat his Democratic opponents in the primaries, and kicked the asses of his Republican contenders in the general election. The Philadelphia Inquirer called it a “backlash” from the Seth Williams debacle. The Fraternal Order of Police was slow to climb on board. After all, Krasner had sued them close to 100 times, and had been a menace in both criminal and civil courts.
This is a movement that is tired of seeing a system that has systematically broken, and that has picked on poor people, primarily black and brown people. CITATION
Krasner expounds on this explanation during the Vice interview cited above. He insists this is not a Philadelphia movement – Criminal Justice Reform is a national movement growing in many major US cities. The ultimate goal is to take resources away from an exploded incarceration industry and put them into things that actually prevent crime and heal society. CITATION
To the unionized Philadelphia Police Force, Krasner was lighting a bomb under their feet. For one, he publicly released a list of names of officers who lie on the stand to the media. It was, in one respect, a public shaming tactic, and another respect it was a way to enforce to the police that this behavior would not be tolerated by the DA’s office – now his DA’s office.
This release of names came shortly after a New York Times article that highlighted the truly horrifying nightmares lived by exonerees that result when cops “testilie” – essentially lie on the stand. The New York Times article was followed up days later by Krasner’s public release identifying the names of cops who were on a “do not call list” to testify on the stand because of their pattern of lying on the stand in the past. If you are interested, you can read the New York Times Article by clicking here.
Admittedly when I first read the New York Times article (which is quite lengthy), it moved me to both outrage and tears in the same moment.
So when a week later Krasner released the names of cops to the media who were known to “testilie” on the stand, I was proud and relieved. If we can’t hire cops we can trust to do the right thing, then perhaps we can have options of “determent.” As you try to deter a criminal from committing a crime by imposing a harsh penalty; therefore, you can deter a cop from lying on the stand by subjecting him to public embarrassment among his peers and the community.
You have to imagine that the tight knit Philadelphia FOP, the majority of whom reside in South Philly where my mother grew up (and where the mummers were from), found this move by Krasner both unpopular and scary. Unpopular because generally in Philadelphia history (even under the Seth Williams Administration) there was a code that the DA’s office protected the cops, and the cops did the same for the District Attorneys. This code was broken under Krasner. There was no South Philly unofficial unionization between the DA office and the FOP, Krasner was not going to put up with collusion or testilying, and not only was he not going to tolerate this behavior, he was going to out and publicly embarrass anyone who knowingly engaged in it.
He fired 31 Assistant DA’s in the first week of office. Cases were delayed and the Judges were annoyed and declared him reckless and crazy. The cops, or FOP, were abhorred by this public release of names. The inherent dynamics of the Philadelphia Criminal Justice system changed.
People from all sides of the story grew nervous. Victims grew nervous that he was soft. Cops grew nervous that he was “out to get them.” Judges grew nervous that he would “back up their caseloads.” And the BLM movement activists and black liberation activists, the Innocence Project and other activists for criminal justice reform viewed him suspiciously. He was almost too good to be true. Robin Hood entered the picture, but where was the catch? Krasner was walking a fine line with the torch-burning pitchfork-carrying activists, victims, victims’ rights advocates and judges who had murder trials delayed because of Krasner’s seemingly impulsive firing of 31 prosecutors overnight.
Krasner was disrupting the system that was a historical tradition. People honestly didn’t know what to make of him in the legal community. The law enforcement, who had never quite supported him after close to 100 civil rights lawsuits, and now a public shaming – they were unionized and against him.
Here’s the thing: Krasner never did this for the money. He never expected to win the election with his principles. When he won election he just figured it was what the People wanted, so he implemented his plan. And it was likely a plan he had thought long and hard about.
The opposite side of the coin comes from the 31 prosecutors. One or two of these terminated prosecutors actually showed up for continuance hearings and sat in the row next to victims’ families. These fired prosecutors (who I argue have chips on their shoulders) were given the boot for a reason. Krasner acts with typical Philly style passion, but it’s cultivated by reason. The 31 ADAs he fired were let go not for political reasons, but for ethically minded motives.
Krasner did not want to deal with PCRAs. He wanted the job done right, with fairness from the start. And as a seasoned defense lawyer he understood that retaliatory justice did not bring peace to the family. While long sentences satisfied the victim or victim’s family’s need for Philly-style revenge, retaliatory justice comes with a price. If you ask most victims after a civil case or a criminal case if they feel better with the monetary damages or the criminal penalties, they react with shock. Their answer is usually “no.” What brings peace to the victim’s usually comes years following, when they reach out and say thank you for what you did, but I feel better now because I forgave. A death sentence or a check for monetary damages in the seven figures region does not play the role of God. Once you lose a loved one, there are emotional consequences that can never be resolved by money, a death sentence, a lengthy prison sentence, etc. No matter what civil or criminal remedies the court offers, there will always be an emotional aspect to any victim of negligence or a criminal act. And it’s only (generally) years after the resolution of the case that victims truly figure this out and come to peace with it.
But former prosecutors fired by Larry Krasner FAIL to catch this reasoning. I suspect the disconnect is that they have never been victims themselves and they are dumb shit ADAs making 42k a year, and it’s their first job out of law school and they haven’t met a lot of victims or known them through the years: One of those former prosecutors is Guy Deandrea. “Do you think the picture that Larry Krasner painted of the District Attorney’s Office, over the course of his career and in particularly during the campaign is fair?” Deandre: The way he categorized it, it just sickened me, and when I hear that the prosecutors that are in office are just blood thirsty, and all we want is a conviction – No, what we want to do is help people who have been victimized, that’s all we want to do. That message put a very dark cloud on the office.
I see Deandre as an attorney who looks to be about 28 years old, fresh out of law school and lacks the experience that Krasner has of seeing both sides. He lacks the longevity to understand that retaliatory justice, whether in the form of monetary damages or harsh sentencing practices benefits neither the criminal defendant nor the victim’s family in the long run. In the short run, it gives them a fight over a heat of a litigatory battle in which to divert their grief stricken attentions. In the long run, no amount of vengeance or money can return the loss of a loved one. And the spiritual peace comes through the natural healing process of grief. Recall the stages of grief. Litigation, in my humble experience, prolongs the anger stage. If the victim wins, then they think they will magically feel better. Working on cases that start with “estate of John Doe vs. ________” I have found the opposite is true. You don’t feel better after a verdict, you get some relief, but that relief is short lived.
The Philadelphia FOP issued a statement: We look forward to working with Krasner to make our great city safer. Translation? The FOP is not on board. It takes a seasoned lawyer like Krasner to understand the longevity of the suffering process when someone is a victim of crime or of serious negligence.
In other words, Krasner sees the bigger picture. He doesn’t see the same frame as the 27 year old scrappy “hard prosecuting” bulldog prosecutor – he sees the entire equation. And that experience can only come with time.
But as Vice News Reports, don’t be fooled by this feigned “amicability” between the Philly FOP and the new DA. In a leaked recent letter to cadets, the FOP “slams” Krasner for suggesting that cops could get in trouble for firing their guns unnecessarily.
VICE NEWS: It seems to me that unless you compromise, significantly, on some of the platform issues that you ran on, that you will inevitably end up pissing off large swaths of the criminal justice system.
KRASNER [Without hesitation]: We already pissed them off. That’s okay. And that’s why when we started the campaign, and we laid out the entire agenda, including certain things that were considered a political death, voters were drawn to it, because they were tired of hearing mealy mouthed, half-assed, answers from people who don’t want to take a position. Is it going to piss off the political establishment, or at least the CJS establishment? It is. Is that a good thing? Yes. Is change necessary? Yes. And this is how you achieve change. CITATION
So when people accuse Krasner of being a rogue, Robin Hood type of character of criminal justice reform, he objects every single time. This is not his view point.
Krasner doesn’t think that at all. “I’m a lawyer” Krasner tells Here & Now’s Eric Westervelt. “We don’t know how to do revolution.” But what years of practice does tell Krasner, is that while he thinks he might not know how to “do a revolution,” he somehow has become revolutionary.
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.” CITATION
On what he’s asking his prosecutors to do to reduce the number of cases resulting in a plea bargain
“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.” CITATION
“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.”
“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.”