Matt Katz: I'm Matt Katz, a reporter in the WNYC newsroom in for Tanzina Vega, and this is The Takeaway. This Week in Pennsylvania, incumbent Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner won the Democratic primary for re-election. Why does this matter to the rest of America? Krasner is considered a leader in a new wave of so-called progressive prosecutors, who are winning elections across the country by promising to end mass incarceration. His opponent, Carlos Vega, was a former prosecutor who had the support of the local police union, which attempted to paint Krasner as soft on crime amid the highest homicide rate in the city in 30 years, but the law and order mantra did not work.
Krasner won with over 65% of the vote, and in communities of color Krasner, who is white and a former civil rights lawyer, performed overwhelmingly well. Krasner has refused to prosecute many low-level offenses. He basically cleaned house of longtime prosecutors who adhere to a lock him up approach. Now that the primary challenge is behind him, Krasner is expected to win another term later this year against the Republican challenger in this very Democratic city. With me now is Larry Krasner, Philadelphia District Attorney. Larry, welcome back to the show, and congratulations on your victory on Tuesday.
Larry Krasner: Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.
Matt Katz: You have ended cash bail for many crimes, you dropped drug cases if the offender goes to treatment, the number of adults and juveniles locked up and people on probation and parole is down dramatically. Do you think that you change the direction of our criminal justice system and turn it around? Or did your first term amount to nibbling around the edges of a pretty and transient set of problems that can't simply be fixed by four years from one DA?
Larry Krasner: Wonderful question. I don't think I've fixed anything, honestly. I think what happened is that we are seeing in Philadelphia, what we saw a year or two prior to my being elected in Chicago and in Orlando, and in some other cities, which is that there is a vast and popular movement for criminal justice reform that is electing technicians. It's electing chief prosecutors in different places, many of them very big cities. 10% of the US population has now elected a progressive prosecutor and overwhelmingly they have re-elected them. Those people are doing this and they're doing it in Philly, but I also think it's important to recognize where that comes from.
In my mind, it's very, very clear that the crushing weight of mass incarceration for so many years is the reason that we are seeing this popular movement come up.
Matt Katz: The crushing weight on communities of color on governments, on budgets, on everything?
Larry Krasner: On everybody, honestly. Certainly, it has most affected communities of color and poor people. There's no doubt about that, but somebody's got to pay that bill, and that means public schools for everyone have been drained of funds, and those funds went into prisons, and they went into jails. Employers who want to hire people but are constrained for whatever reason that they can't hire people who've been convicted are not well served by a whole bunch of unnecessary conviction. Cities that need to have a tax base from employable people are not well served by a system that is hell-bent on convicting as many people as possible and putting them in jail.
At the more personal level, every one of us, even people who have a level of privilege, people who are white, have high school friends or we have neighbors, or we have someone in our life, an employee perhaps, who has been so drastically affected by mass incarceration and this mad rush in the land of the free, supposedly land of the free, to convict everybody. We have been so affected that it has touched us.
Matt Katz: Meanwhile, the gun violence in Philadelphia is no joke. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of homicides rose from 356 to 499. This year is on pace to be even worse. Your nemeses at the FOP police union have tried to blame all of this on you, and voters obviously didn't buy that since you just won a primary in a landslide. You've said that the pandemic and systemic socio-economic issues like we just talked about were to blame for the recent bloodshed, but you are one of the two leading law enforcement figures in the whole city. Aren't you one of the main people responsible here for reducing the murder rate?
Larry Krasner: There's no question that I and this office have a very important responsibility and a focus on truly serious crime, especially at the moment, the crisis of fatal and non-fatal shootings, but Philadelphians are pretty smart. They are well aware that in the 50 biggest cities in the United States that the average increase in gun violence was 42% last year, in Philly was 40%. We were about average, maybe a touch light when it comes to that, and they know that in many, many of those cities, you have very traditional prosecutors. If you're getting higher rates of violence from guns, and you're getting higher rates of homicide in those traditional prosecutor's cities, where's the voice of the police unions about them?
Where's the blame being thrown their way? Philly knows what this is. This is a cheap politics that is trying to take advantage of a national tragedy. The roots of that tragedy in the long run in Philly are chronic violence because Philly has been a chronically violent city, it has been the poorest of the 10 largest cities through one traditional prosecutor's administration after another. The more recent crisis, which is national, is unquestionably directly related to all of the consequences of our pandemic.
Matt Katz: Is there anything then that you can do about it? Is there anything you might be doing differently in a second term to try to keep the city a bit safer?
Larry Krasner: Well, there are things that all of us can do, and there are things we all should have been doing a long time. In my view, they are in much starker relief than they were before. What we've seen during the pandemic is the complete stripping away of prevention when it comes to young people, and it is young men who are killing young men. That's what's happening here. Think about it for a second, your high school classrooms closed, we have seen the closing of all organized sports in and out of school, the elimination of rec centers, swimming pools, summer camp, summer job programs, other types of economic opportunity, just including normal jobs and a low dollar economy.
Everybody making less than $40 grand got smashed by this pandemic, and employment in that range got smashed. A lot of these kids' parents became unemployed during this time period, and even the normal things they might have done, going to movie theaters, things like that were all eliminated. We have this very, very anomalous situation where crime is actually down all over the country and in Philly> Even violent crime as a category is down all over the country and in Philly, yet you have this incredibly sharp spike all over the country.
By the way, you want to talk about rural areas. The increase nationally, including cornfields, is 18% last year, which is a radical spike up in a country that is dominated by traditional prosecutors. What we are seeing here is that the stripping away of prevention is far more devastating than we imagined. Yes, it also made it worse that courts closed as they did in Philly, and everywhere else, that police couldn't do what they usually did, the probation officers can't even see the people they supervise. That didn't help. Having said that, the answer here is prevention, and this pandemic has made that obvious.
A city, Philadelphia being such a city, that has not invested heavily in prevention is making terrible mistakes. Where we have to go, and it's obvious from this pandemic, is we have to go to serious investment in prevention, which we have never done as a country or as a city in Philly.
Matt Katz: The Philadelphia Inquirer found that thousands more people have recently been arrested for carrying guns illegally, but their chances of being convicted are down nearly a quarter. Why are you winning fewer convictions? I'm also wondering if you even think that everyone who's caught with an illegal gun should even go to jail?
Larry Krasner: We're not actually winning fewer convictions. Our conviction rate for shootings, fatal and non-fatal shootings, is nearly 85%. That is without cheating, which is what prior administrations did. They did not give the evidence to the defense, they just were hell-bent on winning, even if that meant shredding a witness statement. Our conviction rate is extremely high by Philly standards. It's extremely high by national standards. On the other hand, the rate of shootings being solved in Philadelphia is actually 20% below the national average. These cases are solved by police. That is what police do, they're primary on it.
Sure, we want to help them where we can but let's be honest about this. You got 6500 cops out there. I got about 30 DA's detectives. If we're having a problem-solving shootings, and that is the crisis, the crisis is the shootings, then we have to talk about what needs to be done. I can get into the weeds with the details of how I am collaborating with our police commissioner, and I think she's got some good ideas and we've worked well on that, but we're once again back to a cheap politics of blame, of trying to single out the person who's holding police accountable.
Claiming that that person, because he has charged two police officers with homicide while they were on the job in uniform, that that one person somehow has caused all of this to happen. I am not here to say that everything we're doing is perfect. We know it's not, this is the kind of job that requires constant tinkering and constant maintenance with what we're doing, but even as courts are now finally starting to open, we're finally able to start to do some jury trials in a system that's been 90% shut down, where the caseload has increased 50% because we were unable to resolve cases. Even now, we just won a major shooting case.
It's what we do. We do the work and we do the work well, but we have a systemic crisis here, and it requires an investment in prevention above all else.
Matt Katz: Focusing on crimes in which guns are used to hurt people and kill people and maybe de-emphasize crimes in which is just illegal gun possession, is it possible that those crimes don't necessarily end up in jail with jail time?
Larry Krasner: Gun possession offenses really run the gamut. You have people who are driving gun violence, who are caught with guns, who have prior felony convictions, those are cases that we prosecute very vigorously, but you also have the college kid who has no criminal record, who's walking around in Philadelphia with a gun that he legally purchased because he's scared. Only in Philadelphia, out of all the counties in Pennsylvania, are you required to have a permit to carry that gun. In every other county what he did was legal, but in Philadelphia, it's illegal.
That's the kind of situation where you see no indication of criminality, where we should be smart, and that should be diverted. In other words, accountability without there being a conviction that is going to obstruct that person's future. Frankly, that conviction would push him toward crime, not away from it.
Matt Katz: In a New York Times op-ed, Malik Neal, from the Philadelphia Bail Fund said that during the pandemic your office was still engaging in pretrial detention with sometimes very high bail. You have spoken strongly against the idea of bail in general. How do you respond to this criticism from the left, and what happened to ending bail as we know it?
Larry Krasner: The problem that we have in Pennsylvania is that judges are not only allowed but are more or less required to use a cash bail system. That is not what we want. I want cash bail eliminated, but the true solution here is the Pennsylvania legislature has to do what they did in Washington, DC 30 years ago, what they've done more recently in Jersey and in Kentucky, and most recently, Illinois, which is the legislature has to say, "Judges, you can't use money, you either hold them because they are so dangerous, they need to be held before trial, or you let them go."
Where they have done that, for example, in DC over 30 years, about 88% of people get out and they don't have to pay any money to get out, and about 12% of people are held because they present such a danger. Part of what is happening is that there are some on the left who believe no one should be held pre-trial ever. Not someone against whom we have very strong evidence of a spinal shooting that has paralyzed somebody, not someone who's charged with homicide, and I don't agree with that. Our position is that on the most serious crimes where people present a very serious danger to the community, they should be held before trial. Then what happens at trial happens and we go from there.
We accept criticism from people who believe that no one should be held pre-trial. We don't believe that that's the law. There's not one state in the United States that has embraced that notion. We accept that, and we respect it as some ideal that perhaps someday will be possible under different circumstances, but it's not possible now. We do seek very high bail, because it's the only tool we have for people who are charged with truly serious offenses and have a record that suggests it's appropriate, such as a paralysis shooting, such as a first-degree felony rape, things of that sort.
Matt Katz: I've been watching this excellent docu-series on PBS about your first term, Philly D.A., and it documents how you basically cleaned house at the prosecutor's office, getting rid of all the attorneys who didn't have your vision for reform, including, by the way, a guy who just beat in the election on Tuesday. In the documentary, one prosecutor, shortly before she's demoted says, quote, "You don't have to destroy the system to get the results you want." That's her criticism of you. Do you have to destroy the system to get the results you want?
Larry Krasner: To me, it's interesting to hear that, and I know the woman to whom you are referring. She is someone who I like and respect in many ways, but here's I think what they're missing, is that what happened in the last 30 to 40 years was there destroying the system. If we look historically at levels of incarceration in the United States for decade after decade before around Richard Nixon becoming president, what you see is a steady and much, much lower level of incarceration in the United States that worked just fine. That's what we see.
This whole thing, which comes out of a coded racist conversation that Richard Nixon was having for his own political benefit, this whole thing which comes out of the supposed war on drugs, which actually became a war on people, is their invention. It's their doing, it's their radical experiment. For whatever reasons, including generational reasons, to them it's normal. It's not normal. We have to get back to something that allows the United States, the supposed the land of freedom, not to be a living lie. That's what it is right now in terms of criminal justice. It is absurd to call yourself the land of freedom and simultaneously to be the most incarcerated country in the world, where we do one foolish thing after another when it comes to criminal justice.
Matt Katz: Fascinating things happening in Philly, we are going to definitely be keeping an eye on things. Larry Krasner is the Philadelphia District Attorney. Thanks so much for coming on The Takeaway.
Larry Krasner: Thank you.
Matt Katz: Now we're going to step back and discuss what Larry Krasner's win may mean for the national movement for so-called progressive prosecutors. With me now is Daniel Nichanian, Editorial Director of The Appeal’s Political Report. Daniel, welcome to the show.
Daniel Nichanian: Hey, it's so great to join you.
Matt Katz: Daniel, you just heard some of our interview with Larry Krasner. You follow this stuff very closely. What are your thoughts on what we just discussed?
Daniel Nichanian: Well, the last thing I heard was your exchange with them about the question of whether the system has to be destroyed to get the result you want. That was a very interesting exchange. I think Philadelphia is a great case study for the answer to that question because over the course of his first term, Larry Krasner has faced the hostility of not just people within his office, which I think you alluded to in your question briefly, but also of the state attorney general, who's a Democrat, who maneuvered with Republicans in the states and assembly to strip him of some of his power. He faced some resistance from people on the bench in Philadelphia. He faced constant attacks from the police union you were mentioning, and also from the Trump-appointed US Attorney.
Then there's all of these people within the system, within the criminal legal system, judges, probation officers, et cetera, who are part of this machine that we're discussing now of what fuels that the fact that there are so many people in jail and prison in Pennsylvania. It's really important, as we think about the progressive prosecutor movement and what Krasner's win may or may not mean for the future, to really think about the system he's been part of and what is hindering or not his ascension, and therefore also what might a second term mean for all these questions.
Matt Katz: Given the fact that he's got basically the rest of the criminal justice establishment up against him, and this is the same case in other places where there are progressive prosecutors, can these progressive prosecutors make any dramatic inroads in totally changing the way we handle criminal justice in this country?
Daniel Nichanian: Well, I think the answer is twofold. On the one hand, we are seeing already very significant changes in the statistics of who is incarcerated, how many people are incarcerated, what types of charges are being prosecuted. Just as an example, we had The Appeal ran an article that looked at the prosecution of drug cases in Philadelphia, and that Larry Krasner, over the course of his first term, dramatically increased the number of cases of drug possession that have been just dropped by the office. When the police in Philadelphia that aren't necessarily friendly to this vision are bringing cases to the office, most cases, an increasing share at this point, are just being dismissed. That's just a very direct impact on people's lives that have been harmed by the war on drugs.
The other thing is that activists, the very same activists who have been fighting to change the landscape in the elections have been turning their attention as well to other of those spots, other of the institutions that do matter. Just, for instance, there was a big movement in Philadelphia on Tuesday, not just on behalf of Larry Krasner by groups like Reclaim Philadelphia, a progressive group there, but also on behalf of electing judges to the bench. The very judges that are going to hear the cases that Krasner is going to bring and are going to actually decide matters like bail and sentencing.
Seven of the eight open slots in this court, the criminal proceedings, went to progressive candidates endorsed by the same group that had endorsed Krasner. That is very important when we think about it's not just that Larry Krasner beat back the police union challenge, but it's that progressives expanded their reach in the system in Philadelphia this week.
Matt Katz: That's so interesting. Nationally, you've been following this movement of progressive prosecutors. How many have been elected? Is there a number? Of those who have been elected around the country, have they been successful, or at least made some major changes like Krasner has?
Daniel Nichanian: That's a great question. I started writing on prosecutors very regularly, few months after Krasner's first win in 2017. The length and the sea change since then is really remarkable. At the time, the idea of someone with Krasner's outsider status, he'd never worked in law enforcement, in fact, he had thought law enforcement throughout his career, would win seemed like a new era. Was this going to be reproduced? What is happening? So many people since then have specifically said they've been inspired to run for prosecutor by Krasner's win, in part, because it changed the expectations of who can win on the basis of what platform.
Many people who maybe have a big goal of decreasing incarceration and who would not have thought of running for prosecutor as an avenue, now have expanded their imagination. In places like San Francisco, LA, New Orleans, Austin, and Arbor, Orlando, Boston, and I could go on. A lot of suburban Virginia had just this sudden wave of progressives in 2019. I'm just listing it to give you a sense of the kind of wave of change that has happened within these offices. We are seeing specific changes in all these places. Just maybe a couple of examples quickly. In Virginia, what's been interesting in Virginia is just the main state that has had a group of prosecutors coming in this platform at once.
That has changed not just local politics, but state-level politics, because these prosecutors have banded together, and they've chosen to go to the state capitol and argue for criminal justice reforms in a way that they wouldn't have otherwise. That has changed the laws that are passing. The second example is in New Orleans, the new DA just elected in November. New Orleans is the nation's incarceration capital, absolutely staggering rates of prison in New Orleans. What he's doing is he's trying to look back at people who are already in prison, excessive sentences, wrongful convictions, and many people have already, in the course of a few months, left prison because of the presence of this new prosecutor.
Matt Katz: Totally fascinating. Daniel Nichanian, editorial director of The Appeal’s Political Report. Daniel, it's so nice to talk to you, really appreciate all this information.
Daniel Nichanian: Thank you so much for having me.
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