Over the past two weeks, the New Yorker and NYTimes published pair of profiles on Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, one year into his term.
- New Yorker: Larry Krasner’s Campaign to End Mass Incarceration
- New York Times Magazine: In Philadelphia, a Progressive D.A. Tests the Power — and Learns the Limits — of His Office
Between the NYTimes Magazine piece on the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia and the recent obsession with the Philadelphia Flyers’ new mascot, Gritty, it seems like Philadelphia has suddenly been thrust into the national spotlight. Even the South Philly Mexican restaurant Barbacoa was given Netflix’s Chef’s Table treatment in October, leading to even-longer lines. Stretching further back into this extremely long year, Philadelphia’s unlikely Super Bowl LII ascendance and subsequent parade captured the hearts of millions. In some ways, it really does feel like the Year of Brotherly Love.
However, much more quietly and behind the scenes, Larry Krasner has been remaking Philadelphia’s criminal justice system from inside the institution — a career-long criminal defense attorney with no prosecutorial experience suddenly given the keys to the opposing side’s castle.
In an national environment where Trump’s ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric seems to have won over voters nationally, and his appointed (but mostly reviled) DA Jeff Sessions has become renowned for the impunity with which he carries out his job, it feels like strict adherence to law-and-order would be in ‘vogue’ politically.
However, as both articles recount, there has been a countervailing wave of ‘progressive’ district attorneys being voted into office across the country (and not just on the overwhelmingly-Democratic coasts). In cities like Kansas City and Corpus Christi, voters are clearly exhausted with a broken system that overincarserates offenders into overcrowded jails, boasts extremely high rates of recidivism, and shields violence committed by policemen.
Krasner is at the vanguard of this movement, seeking to radically rethink managing urban crime in one of the most historically violent cities in America, and bravely trying to do so within the system, as opposed to as an system-opposing activist or from within an academic institution.
Aside from the obvious sympathy one must feel for the reporters who worked for months on their respective articles, I do think they are mostly complementary. For the most part, they use different sources, and choose to focus on different aspects of Krasner’s assumption of the job.
Drawing on the work and literature of inspiring individuals like Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Adam Foss, and others, Krasner has dramatically changed how crime (especially minor crimes) are prosecuted in Philadelphia, removing minimum bail and minimum sentencing for crimes like petty theft, marijuana possession, and prostitution, and instructing his prosecutors (including pre-Krasner city prosecutors and new recruits) to share the estimated cost of incarceration associated with any prison sentence.
In the wake of Obama’s Presidency, where an idealist and (mostly) outsider was suddenly charged with ‘change’ in an institution that is designed to impede dramatic action, Krasner’s first year is a fascinating case study in trying to change an ingrained culture, bring along naysayers, make an immediate impact on a broken cycle of criminal justice, and operate within the political system, all while trying to maintain the support of the activists and idealists who brought Krasner into office in the first place.
The articles are also a useful look into the bifurcated politics of Philadelphia, a city I continue to call home even while away — where no-tolerance district attorneys (Specter, Rendell, Abraham) have been a consensus for the past 30-odd years despite overwhelmingly liberal Congressional and Presidential voting, and the local policemen’s’ union, the Fraternal Order of Police, is a powerful and unified voice in support of the police force. In addition, the articles are cast in the backdrop of an opioid epidemic that has completely ravaged parts of Philadelphia, compelling Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to declare the drug-laden North Philadelphia a ’state emergency’.
While Philadelphia has long been an afterthought, proclaimed part of the ‘acela corridor’ (i.e., between NYC and DC), or ‘the sixth borough’ of NYC every couple of years by story-starved NYC journalists, it is heartening to see innovative thinking and progressive action being taken in the city.