Larry Krasner and the fight to break the cages

October 1, 2018

Larry Krasner, a Philadelphia defense attorney and longtime adversary of the police and mass incarceration, won election as top prosecutor on a platform of promising dramatic reforms. What’s his record? And what about other progressives elected as district attorneys? Lauren Fleer looks at the balance sheet in Philadelphia, explains the background and considers some of the discussions this raises on the left.

CIVIL RIGHTS attorney Larry Krasner became the district attorney (DA) of Philadelphia in January 2018. Headlines have since described “wild, unprecedented criminal justice reforms” and “a criminal justice revolution” in Philadelphia.

Krasner, who had sued the Philadelphia Police Department 75 times for brutality and civil rights violations, was initially described as an “unelectable” and even “hilarious” candidate for the job of top prosecutor. But a diverse coalition of organizers with a shared commitment to ending mass incarceration joined forces to make Krasner’s victory a reality.

The strategy that elected Krasner has been used in other cities, often with more disappointing results. The electoral model involves winning a primary election for the nomination of the Democratic Party, which as an institution has been an supporter and initiator of the law-and-order policies that activists would like to change.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner attends a City Council committee meeting
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner attends a City Council committee meeting (Philadelphia City Council | flickr)

This article will summarize some results from Krasner’s first months in office and provide some background about the organizing work to get him elected. For socialists debating the pros and cons of electoral projects to advance social movements and working class organization, Krasner’s campaign for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office (DAO) is an interesting and contemporary example worth studying.

What Is Krasner’s Record?

In his seven-month tenure as DA, Krasner has rolled out a sequence of new policies aimed at reducing Philadelphia’s prison population, which until recently was the highest per-capita among the 10 largest U.S. cities.

In February, Krasner announced a policy that prosecutors will no longer seek cash bail for people accused of many nonviolent crimes.

About 30 percent of people behind bars in Philadelphia have not been convicted of a crime, but are there awaiting trial because they can’t afford to pay bail. This is one reason the average stay in Philadelphia’s jails is 95 days, four times the national average.

Krasner’s policy won’t end cash bail — that would require a change in state law — but it does mean that in as many as 4,000 cases per year, defendants will be released rather than locked up.

A five-page policy document released in March directed Krasner’s 300 assistant district attorneys to stop prosecuting marijuana possession and to drop charges against sex workers. He instructed prosecutors to pursue less than the minimum sentences, and to divert cases to rehabilitation programs whenever possible to avoid convictions altogether.

The memo also directs prosecutors to justify the expense of any sentence they seek, reminding staff that “[t]he cost of one year of unnecessary incarceration (at $42,000-$60,000) is in the range of the cost of one year’s salary for a beginning teacher, police officer, fire fighter, social worker, Assistant District Attorney, or addiction counselor.”

The district attorney in Philadelphia has two main authorities: to set policy and to hire and fire staff. Krasner has unapologetically fired dozens of assistant DAs who couldn’t be counted on to carry out his policies in the courtroom.

Since Krasner took office, Philadelphia’s jail population has dropped from 6,440 to 5,043 people, a 21.7 percent decline. This reduction reflects Krasner’s policy changes, as well as other criminal justice reforms initiated in 2016.

Krasner set up a Conviction Integrity Unit that will investigate wrongful convictions. Unlike review boards elsewhere, it will also seek to reduce the sentences of thousands more who were overcharged and oversentenced.

Following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found life-without-parole sentences unconstitutional for youth, Krasner is resentencing juvenile lifers and offering many of them parole right away.

So far, Krasner has delivered on many campaign objectives and adhered to the policies crafted by his social movement base. However his record has not been perfect.

In one tragic murder case, he elected to prosecute a teenager as an adult, a widespread and widely condemned practice that many of those who supported him had set out to reverse.

Early on, Krasner also made an equivocal comment about the death penalty, which drew sharp criticism from many close supporters. He has since restated his opposition to the death penalty, but said that he would not give up the DA’s discretion to employ it.

In one recent case, two men were charged of murdering a police officer while attempting to rob a GameStop store. Predictably, the Fraternal Order of Police demanded a death sentence. The DA’s office didn’t seek a death sentence, but used that possibility to negotiate a plea bargain — prosecutors offered the accused life without parole, agreeing not to seek the death penalty if they pled guilty and gave up appeal rights.

The Coalition for a Just District Attorney, Krasner’s core group of grassroots supporters and advisers, told Philadelphia magazine that it approved of the DA’s decision in not pursuing a death sentence. For others, however, using the death penalty as a tool to get plea deals represented a betrayal of his campaign promise.

The DA’s office under Krasner has opposed political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal’s petition for a new trial.

Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner. For 35 years, Abu-Jamal has maintained his innocence and fought to overturn the conviction, with mass support inside and outside Philadelphia.

Ronald Castille was an assistant DA during the original trial, and when he became the head prosecutor in 1986, he fought to uphold the death sentence throughout direct appeals. Castille was elected to the state Supreme Court in 1998, where he ruled on and denied Abu-Jamal’s subsequent post-conviction appeals.

Castille ruled on other cases that he had previously prosecuted. In 2016, the state Supreme Court ruling in Williams v. Pennsylvania established that all judges should remove themselves from any case in which they had been previously involved as prosecutors.

On this basis, Abu-Jamal’s defense attorneys argue that Mumia deserves a new trial because earlier judgments were tainted with judicial bias. But Krasner’s office argued in April that there was no due process violation, because Castille had no significant involvement with the case during his time in the DA’s office.

The DA’s position on Abu-Jamal’s case was disappointing, but not unexpected. After all, Krasner appointed Castille to his transition team once he was elected as DA — an outrage to many supporters.

On the other hand, Krasner recommended parole for the MOVE 9, whose history of persecution and brutality at the hands of the state stretches back nearly 40 years. Previous DAs, even those touted as reformers, refused to do this.

In general, Krasner’s office has taken decisive action to depopulate the jails, which are mostly filled with Black and Brown people convicted of minor and nonviolent offenses. He has proven less willing to take a stand on the most controversial cases, like Abu-Jamal’s, which threaten to provoke significant backlash from the FOP and other adversaries.

How Did Krasner Win Office?

Krasner began his legal career in 1987 as a public defender, and he went on to start a private practice where he represented activists from ACT UP, Occupy, Black Lives Matter and other organizations on a pro bono basis. These relationships built a foundation of trust between Krasner and the activist community that ultimately organized around his campaign for the DA’s office.

In the wake of the despair felt by progressives following Trump’s election, a diverse group of community, political, religious and labor organizations renewed their commitment to working together and taking joint action.

One collection of organizations, which came to be known as the Coalition for a Just District Attorney, organized an accountability campaign aimed at incumbent DA Seth Williams.

A corruption scandal, which ultimately sent Williams to prison, opened up the head prosecutor’s office to a wide field of candidates. The coalition searched for a candidate who could take advantage of the vacuum left by Williams. Krasner, dismayed to find that all the other candidates in the race were former prosecutors, decided to run, with the coalition’s support.

The Coalition for a Just DA includes approximately 20 groups, including the Media Mobilizing Project, Juntos, Decarcerate PA, the Center for Returning Citizens, Frontline Dads Inc., the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, POWER Interfaith, the No215Jail Coalition, New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, Color of Change, ACLU of Pennsylvania and others.

Reclaim Philadelphia and 215 People’s Alliance supported the effort with a massive canvassing operation that knocked on 60,000 doors and spoke with 11,000 people. ACLU Pennsylvania, the Working Families Party and POWER Interfaith reached out to tens of thousands more in similarly massive canvassing efforts.

Organizations of currently and formerly incarcerated people played an important role in mobilizing people to vote, with a particular focus in Philadelphia’s Black and Brown communities.

J. Jondhi Harrell of the Center for Returning Citizens recalls: “It was not a hard sell to convince people how important the DA position is. While canvassing, we found that eight out of 10 houses had someone who was impacted by the criminal justice system.”

Within Pennsylvania’s 30 state prisons, incarcerated people conducted voter education, registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns aimed at their family and friends. They made fliers and circulated them within the cellblocks.

Right to Redemption and other prisoners’ organizations offered their official endorsement. Prisoners and others directly affected by youth incarceration, the bail system, immigration enforcement and “death by incarceration” sentences — aka life without parole — also supported Krasner and drafted in-depth policies that were incorporated into Krasner’s reform agenda.

The Soros Foundation donated $1.5 million for advertising that palpably boosted Krasner’s name recognition during canvassing.

Philadelphia’s Democratic Party “machine” was split between other candidates in a crowded field. Krasner won landslide victories in both the primary and general elections, with record turnouts. Some 200,000 voters turned out in 2017, compared to approximately 120,000 voters in each of the three previous elections.

The Soros funds, the corruption scandal and a Democratic machine in disarray made conditions more favorable, but by themselves, they would not have guaranteed victory. Ultimately, the influence of the Black Lives Matter and decarceration movements, combined with a broad united front collaboration and extensive outreach efforts on the ground, delivered Krasner’s victory.

For the coalition, holding their candidate accountable was part of the project from the outset. Two days after Krasner won the primary election, the Coalition for a Just DA held a protest outside the DA’s office to present demands for his first 100 days in office.

The coalition meets monthly with Krasner to discuss implementation of its decarceration policies, address challenges and offer feedback. These monthly meetings are the main accountability mechanism set up to keep the DA aligned with the perspectives of movement organizers.

While Krasner is at the center of the media spotlight, in nearly every public appearance, he de-emphasizes his role and situates himself as a representative for the larger decarceration movement.

Many people have concluded that this attitude, on the part of both candidates and their supporters, is critical.

At a recent town hall meeting in Philadelphia, journalist and social justice activist Shaun King said: “We’ve tried to duplicate Larry’s election in places without being part of the local movement. And if you try to leapfrog past what Larry is saying and elect someone who’s got a good platform and a good heart, but try to do it disconnected from a local movement, you will not win.

Philadelphia organizers knew from the outset that leadership from the local movement would be crucial, not only crucial to winning office, but in guiding the work of DAs once they won.

A National Effort to Elect Reformer DAs

National organizations such as the ACLU, Color of Change PAC, People’s Action and Real Justice PAC have launched campaigns to elect progressive district attorneys in other cities across the country. District Attorneys such as Kim Foxx in Chicago, Kim Ogg in Houston and Wesley Bell of Ferguson, Missouri, are among the victorious candidates supported by this effort.

These national campaigns are based on the recognition that prosecutors are the most powerful of all the power brokers in the criminal justice system.

They have enormous discretion over what crimes to charge, the number of counts, the sentences to seek and the terms of plea bargain deals. Typical metrics of success for prosecutors are the number of convictions they can rack up, and the number of years that they can lock people away.

Campaigns to reform the DA’s office attempt to utilize this enormous prosecutorial discretion to cut off the supply of prisoners to the prison industry, rather than ramp it up. In some ways, it is the progressive equivalent of putting Scott Pruitt in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency he wanted to dramatically curtail, if not abolish.

But so far, Krasner’s record appears substantially better than many of the other DAs whose campaigns centered on criminal justice reform.

Shaun King, the founder of Real Justice PAC, acknowledged of the reformer DAs: “Once in office, their reforms have often been painfully slow and disappointing.”

One example is Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who received mixed reviews after her first year in office.

Foxx is credited with making some progress toward bail reform and greater data transparency, but she has been criticized for a failure to address police misconduct and wrongful convictions.

This criticism is significant owing to the context in which she was elected — Foxx defeated incumbent State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in the aftermath of the release of dash-cam footage showing police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times as he ran away.

Foxx campaigned against Alvarez for waiting more than a year to indict Van Dyke and promised to “require a special prosecutor in all police-involved shooting cases” because of the close relationship between the state’s attorney’s office and police officers. However, Foxx changed her position and now says a special prosecutor to prosecute police misconduct isn’t necessary.

Likewise, Houston District Attorney Kim Ogg has been criticized for seeking high cash bail amounts, even for minor crimes, which is the opposite of what you’d want from a DA concerned with reform. Self-described reformers in New York, New Orleans and Los Angeles have also been criticized for making, at best, bite-sized improvements over the status quo.

What Is the Balance Sheet?

During the last 40 years, the U.S. prison population exploded from 300,000 to 2.3 million prisoners. This number has tapered slightly since 2008, to 2.2 million prisoners at the end of 2016.

Prosecutorial reform aims to reduce this number further, through changes in policy rather than law. In a recent interview with Chris Hayes, Larry Krasner said:

This struggle is going to go on for many years, maybe a decade, maybe two. Then, everybody’s going to look around at a much more liberated, much more progressive criminal justice system, and they’re going to say: “Well, of course, this is the way it always should have been, and I don’t know why it wasn’t. Isn’t that a strange blip that happened between the early 1980s and the late 2010s?”

Returning the U.S. prison state to its 1970s-era capacity would be a monumental achievement. Krasner’s statement suggests that if it were accomplished, he might be content to rest with that outcome.

However, others of his supporters don’t want a “more progressive criminal justice system.” They hold a more radical aspiration for a future where the prison-industrial complex is abolished altogether.

For these abolitionists, the effort to win the DA’s office wasn’t an end in and of itself. It was an electoral project aimed at winning more reforms, as part of a long-term struggle toward a decarcerated society. To them, electing Larry Krasner was a tactical move to bring thousands of people home from jail and prevent thousands more from being railroaded.

Despite Krasner’s limitations, this goal has been at least partly met. Marijuana possession and sex work have been effectively decriminalized. Juvenile lifers are getting parole eligibility. People will not be imprisoned while awaiting trial just because they’re broke. The Conviction Integrity Unit will investigate wrongful convictions and reduce sentences.

These reforms directly impact thousands of lives, disproportionately Black and brown. Simply put, these lives matter. Reforms that set people free ought to not be dismissed because they are “merely reforms” that fall short of total prison abolition.

Beyond their intrinsic value, these reforms will have the additional benefit of bolstering organizing efforts going forward. As Paul D’Amato wrote at Socialist Worker: “It is in the collective fight for reforms that ordinary people are radicalized and are infused with class consciousness and a sense of their own power.”

Depopulating the jails will also allow people to imagine a different social landscape, where incarceration is not the dominant mode of solving social problems. It can begin a process of moving resources away from punishment and toward education, housing and health care.

It remains to be seen if Philadelphia’s example of prosecutorial reform can be scaled up to other cities. Many of the reformer DAs elsewhere have accomplished fewer meaningful reforms than expected.

More comparative analysis would be useful to understand the reasons for these differences. Krasner’s experience as a defense and civil rights attorney certainly sets him apart from the lot, many of whom are former prosecutors.

But the strength of the grassroots movements in Philadelphia is the other obvious factor contributing to Krasner’s exceptional performance. They have insisted on accountability to movement demands from the very beginning. Most importantly, organizers have not let up on their work — to close prisons and end cash bail, to protest police brutality, and to challenge death-by-incarceration and immigrant detention.

It is this work at the grassroots level that will continue to define the political landscape, exert pressure on public officials and offer up a vision of a world without cages.

Further Reading

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