Meet the Civil Rights Lawyer Shaking Up the Race for Philadelphia District Attorney

Larry Krasner wants to change the way the Philadelphia D.A. does business. He just received $300,000 from a super PAC to make his case to the public.


Larry Krasner // Richard Garella

Larry Krasner, a long-time Philadelphia civil rights and criminal defense attorney, isn't your usual candidate for district attorney, but then, the race to be the city's top prosecutor has been anything but usual.

It started when Philadelphia D.A. Seth Williams—under the grim cloud of a federal corruption investigation—announced in February he wouldn't seek reelection. Since then, the sudden race to replace him has taken a remarkably reform-minded turn. Krasner is one of seven Democratic candidates vying for their party's nomination on May 16 to be Philadelphia district attorney. All of them are opponents of the death penalty, favor marijuana decriminalization, and echo the criticisms and concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The landscape of the race changed yet again on Tuesday when the "Philadelphia Justice and Public Safety PAC," an outside spending group affiliated with liberal mega-donor George Soros, announced it was purchasing $300,000 in TV ads to support Krasner.

The cash will put him on a competitive footing with Michael Untermeyer, a former prosecutor and the only other candidate in the race purchasing serious ad time on television. It's also the first time in Philadelphia history that a super PAC has waded into the race for district attorney. In a statement, Whitney Tymas, the treasurer of the PAC, said it is supporting Krasner "because of his commitment to public safety and criminal justice reform." Tymas was also chairman of an outside spending group that worked to successfully unseat Joe Arpaio, the infamous Maricopa County, Arizona sheriff, in November.

If successful, Krasner would be the latest of a number of candidates backed by Soros money to win prosecutor elections over the last two years. Several of those candidates have already made national headlines, such as Aramis Ayala, a Florida state's attorney who was removed from a case by state governor Rick Scott after refusing to seek the death penalty against a defendant.

The race also comes at a time when Philadelphia is in the midst of an experiment to tweak its policing and pre-trial practices to keep low-level offenders out of jail. As part of $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation awarded last year, Philadelphia has reduced its jail population by 12 percent since last April.

Reason spoke to Krasner over the phone about civil asset forfeiture, marijuana, the death penalty, and how he would use his discretion as a prosecutor. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

REASON: You don't usually see civil rights attorneys running for D.A. What led you to run?

KRASNER: I've been practicing in the criminal courts, as well as doing civil rights matters, for 30 years. Basically since 1987 I've seen the district attorney's office on a steady march in the wrong direction, and I'm sick of it. I watched who was running this time and waited for someone else to jump in who would know the right direction, and it didn't happen. I decided enough is enough. Someone has to state the obvious to this collection of people who are beating their chests and talking about putting people in jail for longer periods of time. I just feel like we have to fundamentally change the direction of criminal justice in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

REASON: A lot of experts and pundits are coming around to this idea that, to make real and significant changes to the prison population, it has to involve the front end of the criminal justice system, where prosecutors have an enormous amount of power. How would you use your discretion as district attorney to move things in, as you say, a different direction?

KRASNER: It's hard to summarize it simply, but in general there's a complete misallocation of resources, which is done for political reasons. Essentially we are not safer, and our society is less just. Classically, the conservative law enforcement community has told us, as Clint Eastwood might, that you have to give up your rights for safety. That is nonsense. Fundamentally it is the respect for individual rights that make us safer, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the stomping of rights alienates communities that are heavily affected by crime. It drives a wedge between police and the good law-abiding people who live in those communities. Police can't get the information they need to address the crimes, and the situation intensifies. It becomes more dangerous for the people who live in those neighborhoods. It becomes more dangerous police who are forced to carry out those law enforcement policies that are themselves violations of the Constitution. That whole either-or mentality is wrong. The fact is you get more safety through justice. That has been missing from the dialogue around what it means to be a proper D.A. in Philadelphia for as long as I can imagine.

How would I use my discretion? First of all, I would not seek the death penalty. In Pennsylvania it's never really imposed. There hasn't been a person put to death against his will since 1962, and yet it costs approximately $2 million a year just to keep nearly 200 people on death row, rather than serving out a life without parole among the general population. The expense of having death penalty trials is incredibly high. It consumes huge amounts of court time, and there are studies indicating it's cost over $1 billion since the 1970s to have this theoretical death penalty available that's never carried out. Where should that money be? It should be in the dismal public education system that Philadelphia has. It should be in drug rehabilitation, rather than criminalizing addiction, which is a medical condition. It should be funding proper community policing. It should be in funding a larger homicide unit—Philadelphia's unit is dwindling. It should be in a lot of places, rather than in what is essentially a fraudulent policy designed to advance the career of district attorneys who want to governor or mayor.

Another way I would exercise my discretion is choosing, whenever I can, not to seek mandatory sentences that I feel are unjust. Many of them are. Mandatory sentences are nothing but the legislature trying to take power away from judges who are closest to the case, who consider all the particularities of the defendant and the crime when coming to a sentence. I find that unacceptable. Our sentencing guidelines, both federal and state in general, are obviously too high and frequently ill-informed.

In terms of discretion, cash bail presents another issue. Philadelphia is a very diverse city. It has an 80 percent Democratic registration. It has the highest level of poverty of the 10 largest cities in the U.S. And yet, with all of that going on, we have people remaining in county jail four times as long as other cities. A large factor in that is many people sit in jail because they're poor and can't afford a pretty moderate amount of bail that a middle-class person could. It tends to force guilty pleas from people who are serving sentences from the moment they're arrested. For obvious reasons, they're eager to get out and are willing to accept a guilty plea, even if they're not guilty, just to do that. The studies are very clear that people who sit in jail instead of being able to exit are far more likely to be convicted, and not because they're guilty, but because they're poor. Another aspect of cash bail in Philadelphia that's offensive is that, even if you're found not guilty of everything, the city keeps 30 percent of the bail money you pay. I find that bizarre. To me, that's simply picking the pockets of the poor.

The district attorney also has a bully pulpit and the ability to reject certain charges. As it stands now, two district attorneys ago we had Lynne Abraham, who basically thought that marijuana was the equivalent of heroin. Our last D.A. had a more constructive attitude, but that still turned into multiple court appearances and taking money out of the pockets of people. That's all unnecessary. It's just a tremendous waste of resources to take people who are doing nothing more than smoking marijuana, arresting them, giving them a bail hearing, giving them a bunch of court dates, and forcing them to watch a video. That's all silly in a state that has already approved the medical use of marijuana, while there is a wave across the country moving in the direction of legalization for recreational use. A prosecutor can simply say I'm not going to prosecute possession or use of small amounts of marijuana at all, so don't bring me your arrests. You can arrest them if you want, but I won't charge them. I'd rather have that police power go to investigating gun crimes, homicides, and the 6 percent of criminal that commit 50 percent of the crimes.

REASON: In Harris County, Texas, the district attorney announced she would no longer charge small marijuana possession cases. She got a lot of pushback from a neighboring D.A., who said, "I swore an oath to follow the law—all the laws, as written by the Texas Legislature. I don't get to pick and choose which laws I enforce." You seem to take the opposite view on prosecutorial discretion.

KRASNER: It's pretty obvious to me that the other prosecutor in Texas is completely unaware of what prosecutorial discretion means, and he should have covered that in his first year of law school. It's not complicated. A prosecutor does have the discretion to decline to prosecute nearly all, if not all, offenses. We're talking about an intelligent decision not to waste resources on an offense that frankly was largely prosecuted for political purposes since the 1960s. I'm with the Harris County D.A.

REASON: A federal judge recently certified a class-action lawsuit challenging Philadelphia's civil asset forfeiture program. Part of that lawsuit argues the city's system is unconstitutional because district attorney office salaries are paid in part by asset forfeiture revenue. How would your office approach asset forfeiture?

KRASNER: There's huge problems with it. I think we can all agrees that if you raid Pablo Escobar's house and you find seven cars, a mountain of kilos and a couple of skeletons in the closet, we know where the giant house and the cars came from. It is an instrument and proceed of crime, and forfeiture of that is appropriate. I don't have any problem with that, but that's not the problem with Philadelphia's asset forfeiture.

Philadelphia's asset forfeiture system has been one where, if a grandkid is caught selling a bag of crack coming out of grandma's house, the D.A.'s office is going to try and take that house. They're going to try and take that house even if the grandma is old and infirm and broke. Part of the reason is because they're directly benefiting from it. It's appalling. You have a direct financial incentive to take property away from people, and unfortunately a large number of people who get swept up are people who are innocent or unaware. Ironically, the person most in charge of that system is running for D.A. as a Republican. Her name is Beth Grossman.

My remedy to this would be fairly sweeping, but most importantly, that money should never go into the D.A.'s fund. It should go into a general fund of sorts, or it should never be done in the first place. It does not belong to the police or the district attorney's office. It belongs to the taxpayer.

REASON: If you were elected district attorney, you would be coming from a different side of our adversarial system of criminal justice. Do you think your mindset would have to change at all?

KRASNER: I didn't come out of law school to be a defense lawyer, I came out of law school to be a lawyer. I don't see it as that much different, because it's the prosecutor's job to seek justice. It's the defense's job to zealously advocate for the defendant. But you're still required to present valid evidence. You're not allowed to perpetrate a fraud, and I've honored that during my career. In my view, they both seek justice, they just do it in different ways. I think the experience of being a defense lawyer for 30 years is better than being a prosecutor for 30 years, and of the reasons is I've been talking to defendants for 30 years.

Honestly, being a criminal defense lawyer is like fighting a war with your fingernails, and being a prosecutor is like fighting a war with tanks and airplanes, because you have all the resources of the state—all the money, the team of investigators, the entire police department. Having pushed the giant boulder up the hill all these years, pushing it back down down doesn't sound to me like it would be a terribly difficult thing to do.