Philadelphia’s newly minted district attorney, Larry Krasner, was meeting constituents in a packed church in West Philadelphia earlier this month to discuss his plans for the job. The meeting was unique in that it quickly revealed to community members what local civic leaders and officials have already learned about Krasner: He is making good on his promise to revolutionize the job of district attorney and, in the process, offering an extraordinary experiment in criminal justice reform at the municipal level that could serve as a national model.
In the church, queries and complaints from constituents that might have made his predecessors cringe were softballs for Krasner: a loved one has been wrongfully incarcerated? Send the case to the revamped Conviction Review Unit, a sort of in-house innocence project. How can lying officers be kept off the stand? He has staff working to verify and expand a formerly secret “do not call” list of 29 suspect officers. Late in the meeting, one elderly woman asked a question that cuts to the core of concerns for those who doubt Krasner’s reforms: What would he do about the drug dealers and users on her street that make her feel unsafe? He didn’t miss a beat: “The past solution was to lock [corner drug dealers] all up and that didn’t work. We have to go after root cause,” he says. This came after an extended riff promising “to go after doctors, and pharmaceutical corporations” for their role in the nation’s opioid crisis. Notably, his office had already initiated legal proceedings against some of those pharmaceutical companies.
Back on the campaign trail last year, Krasner, a former civil rights and criminal defense attorney who had been best known for suing police officers, offered a stump speech that condemned the criminal justice system for being racist and for criminalizing poverty and addiction. He was an unusual candidate to be the city’s top law enforcer. Voters swept him into office. Now, two months into his term, DA Krasner is virtually undistinguishable from candidate Krasner.
On Tuesday, Krasner issued a memo to his staff making official a wave of new policies he had announced his attorneys last month. The memo starts: “These policies are an effort to end mass incarceration and bring balance back to sentencing.”
The most significant and groundbreaking reform is how he has instructed assistant district attorneys to wield their most powerful tool: plea offers. Over 90 percent of criminal cases nationwide are decided in plea bargains, a system which has been broken beyond repair by mandatory minimum sentences and standardized prosecutorial excess. In an about-face from how these transactions typically work, Krasner’s 300 lawyers are to start many plea offers at the low end of sentencing guidelines. For most nonviolent and nonsexual crimes, or economic crimes below a $50,000 threshold, Krasner’s lawyers are now to offer defendants sentences below the bottom end of the state’s guidelines. So, for example, if a person with no prior convictions is accused of breaking into a store at night and emptying the cash register, he would normally face up to 14 months in jail. Under Krasner’s paradigm, he’ll be offered probation. If prosecutors want to use their discretion to deviate from these guidelines, say if a person has a particularly troubling rap sheet, Krasner must personally sign off.
To read the full article by Maura Ewing, click here.