Can Larry Krasner Fix Philly’s Crime Problem?
Larry Krasner wants to fix America’s criminal justice system, which imprisons more people per capita than any other country on the planet. Since 2018, he’s served as the district attorney (D.A.) of Philadelphia—one of America’s most highly incarcerated and crime-ridden cities.
Krasner spent three decades as a criminal and civil rights defense attorney before deciding to run for office. “Our movement did the uncomfortable thing: We took back power,” he wrote in a memoir about his successful run for Philadelphia’s district attorney. “We outsiders went inside and took over the institution we had fought against all our lives.”
In his first week as D.A., Krasner fired 31 staffers and replaced them with a new team that he described as “ideologically attached to the mission.”
“It’s a pretty basic mission for people who are in favor of freedom,” Krasner says. “One of those missions is to be less incarcerated than Vladimir Putin’s Russia….Another aspect is not to have what I would call the ultimate form of big government, which is to be the most incarcerated country in the world without a perceptible increase in safety.”
Krasner easily won reelection in 2021, but shortly after this interview was conducted he was impeached by the Republican-led state legislature, which blames him for the fact that Philly posted a record 562 murders in 2021 and is on pace for a similar outcome when 2022 statstics are finalized.
In October, Reason‘s Zach Weissmueller sat down with Krasner for a video interview to talk about his reforms, his city’s spike in violent crime, the heat that progressive prosecutors have been feeling, and what it all means for the future of American criminal justice reform.
Reason: Straight out of law school, you went to work at a public defender’s office here in Philly. You spent decades as a civil rights defense attorney, and now you are the city’s top prosecutor. What made you decide to pursue that in 2017?
Krasner: When I came out of law school, I was a little bit naive. I actually started out as a state public defender in that “under-resourced rodeo” that Justice [Sonia] Sotomayor talks so much about. I believed that if you were on either side, you could do really good work, and that the system wasn’t broken. But what I found out over 30 years is that in many ways it really is. Those were the same 30 years when much of the rise in mass incarceration occurred.
So I got to the point when I was 56 years old, where I felt like in order to have a much more sweeping impact on a system that I thought was profoundly broken, I had to do something else. And that’s when I decided to run to be a chief prosecutor in Philly.
You have surrounded yourself with people who are aligned with the goal of reforming the criminal justice system. How would you define your mission?
There are other places where they have achieved one-ninth the level of incarceration, and they have one-ninth the level of homicides compared to the United States. We’re allowed to look at how they have incorporated human dignity and freedom and shrinking that part of their government while simultaneously making their country a much safer and better place to be. That’s where we need to go.
What about criminal justice in Philadelphia in particular? How is your city different?
The crazy irony of Philly is that this is a tourist destination for freedom. The Liberty Bell, the place where they wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, all of that is here. And yet when we came into office, it was the most incarcerated of the big cities. It was the poorest of the big cities. It had the highest level of supervision on probation and parole, 25 times higher than New York City. Yet it is a majority-minority city, and it’s also a city that’s about 85 percent Democrat. And arguably, the poorest and most violent of the 10 big cities.
How the hell do you end up with this witch’s brew? How is everything so bad all at the same time? That’s when we came in. Part of the mission was trying to figure out how you unravel that unique combination of economic failure that seems connected to criminal justice policies that don’t make you safer and that tear the city down.
You have declined to prosecute some “victimless” crimes. What were you hoping to achieve with that policy, and has it been successful thus far?
One of the things we really wanted to do was to increase the focus on the most serious crimes that tear apart society, situations where I believe that we do need to have jails and we need to have incarceration and we need to have consequences. But part of doing that is to stop taking offenses that are either victimless, nonviolent, or not serious and try to deal with them through public health approaches.
For example, sex work, or, as they call it in the Pennsylvania code, prostitution. You have a situation in which you are dealing with women or men, because it can be both, and sometimes nonbinary people, who are victims in various different ways. They’re struggling with trauma. They’re struggling with mental health issues. They’re struggling with addiction in many circumstances. And what you’re doing is locking them up, putting them in custody, and making it so they can’t go to police to protect themselves against people who want to harm them. By giving them convictions it’s making it harder for them to reintegrate themselves into society when they’re able to address these issues. You’re not providing them with support for these issues. The reality is you’re not getting good drug treatment or mental health treatment or trauma treatment when you’re in jail. When you’re coming out and you try to become a cashier
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