Criminal Justice

New D.A. Larry Krasner Cleans House in Philadelphia

In his first days in office, the activist turned prosecutor has dismissed 31 career staff.

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Kristi Petrillo

As a candidate for district attorney, career civil rights and criminal defense attorney Larry Krasner promised to shake up Philadelphia's justice system. On that score, at least, he seems to be delivering.

Just a few days after his inauguration, Krasner asked for the resignations of 31 career prosecutors, including a number of upper-level supervisors. The office's homicide division, which has drawn attention in recent decades for its aggressive pursuit of death sentences, appeared to be a major target. Local media reports suggest that the unit may have lost as much as a third of its staff, some of whom joined the office during the tenure of former top prosecutor Lynne Abraham, elected to several terms on her record as "America's Deadliest D.A."

Though the mass dismissal drew criticism from some in the city—including Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police boss John McNesby, a repeated antagonist of Krasner's campaign—Krasner downplayed the event, noting that past incumbents, including D.A.-turned-governor Ed Rendell, had made personnel changes on a similar scale. "The coach gets to pick the team," Krasner told reporters, admitting that many of the dismissed staff "did not fit the mission" he envisions for the office.

Krasner has also made changes among the remaining staff. Drew Jenneman, who has been with the office since 2002, was named interim supervisor of the unit that handles civil asset forfeiture—a practice Philadelphia has used extensively in the past, and which Krasner has pledged to significantly rein in.

New hires include several professional criminal justice reformers. Arun Prabakharan, a former vice president of the Urban Affairs Coalition, will be Krasner's chief of staff, for example; Mike Lee, who co-founded the local civil rights nonprofit Lawyers for Social Equity, will serve as interim director of legislation. Though many of the new hires are, like Lee, on an "interim" basis, Krasner has said their employment is flexible but not necessarily temporary.

But reforming an office with such a history of tough-on-crime intransigence will not be easy, and it is too early to say how significant an impact Krasner's tenure will have. These early actions are promising signs, but candidates with big promises have failed in Philadelphia before. The last district attorney, Seth Williams, also ran as a progressive reformer. Williams is now serving a five-year federal prison term for corruption.

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