Larry Krasner wants to fix America's criminal justice system, which imprisons more people per capita than any other country on the planet. Since 2018, he's served as the district attorney (D.A.) of Philadelphia—one of America's most highly incarcerated and crime-ridden cities.
Krasner spent three decades as a criminal and civil rights defense attorney before deciding to run for office. "Our movement did the uncomfortable thing: We took back power," he wrote in a memoir about his successful run for Philadelphia's district attorney. "We outsiders went inside and took over the institution we had fought against all our lives."
In his first week as D.A., Krasner fired 31 staffers and replaced them with a new team that he described as "ideologically attached to the mission."
"It's a pretty basic mission for people who are in favor of freedom," Krasner says. "One of those missions is to be less incarcerated than Vladimir Putin's Russia….Another aspect is not to have what I would call the ultimate form of big government, which is to be the most incarcerated country in the world without a perceptible increase in safety."
Krasner easily won reelection in 2021, but shortly after this interview was conducted he was impeached by the Republican-led state legislature, which blames him for the fact that Philly posted a record 562 murders in 2021 and is on pace for a similar outcome when 2022 statstics are finalized.
In October, Reason's Zach Weissmueller sat down with Krasner for a video interview to talk about his reforms, his city's spike in violent crime, the heat that progressive prosecutors have been feeling, and what it all means for the future of American criminal justice reform.
Reason: Straight out of law school, you went to work at a public defender's office here in Philly. You spent decades as a civil rights defense attorney, and now you are the city's top prosecutor. What made you decide to pursue that in 2017?
Krasner: When I came out of law school, I was a little bit naive. I actually started out as a state public defender in that "under-resourced rodeo" that Justice [Sonia] Sotomayor talks so much about. I believed that if you were on either side, you could do really good work, and that the system wasn't broken. But what I found out over 30 years is that in many ways it really is. Those were the same 30 years when much of the rise in mass incarceration occurred.
So I got to the point when I was 56 years old, where I felt like in order to have a much more sweeping impact on a system that I thought was profoundly broken, I had to do something else. And that's when I decided to run to be a chief prosecutor in Philly.
You have surrounded yourself with people who are aligned with the goal of reforming the criminal justice system. How would you define your mission?
There are other places where they have achieved one-ninth the level of incarceration, and they have one-ninth the level of homicides compared to the United States. We're allowed to look at how they have incorporated human dignity and freedom and shrinking that part of their government while simultaneously making their country a much safer and better place to be. That's where we need to go.
What about criminal justice in Philadelphia in particular? How is your city different?
The crazy irony of Philly is that this is a tourist destination for freedom. The Liberty Bell, the place where they wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, all of that is here. And yet when we came into office, it was the most incarcerated of the big cities. It was the poorest of the big cities. It had the highest level of supervision on probation and parole, 25 times higher than New York City. Yet it is a majority-minority city, and it's also a city that's about 85 percent Democrat. And arguably, the poorest and most violent of the 10 big cities.
How the hell do you end up with this witch's brew? How is everything so bad all at the same time? That's when we came in. Part of the mission was trying to figure out how you unravel that unique combination of economic failure that seems connected to criminal justice policies that don't make you safer and that tear the city down.
You have declined to prosecute some "victimless" crimes. What were you hoping to achieve with that policy, and has it been successful thus far?
One of the things we really wanted to do was to increase the focus on the most serious crimes that tear apart society, situations where I believe that we do need to have jails and we need to have incarceration and we need to have consequences. But part of doing that is to stop taking offenses that are either victimless, nonviolent, or not serious and try to deal with them through public health approaches.
For example, sex work, or, as they call it in the Pennsylvania code, prostitution. You have a situation in which you are dealing with women or men, because it can be both, and sometimes nonbinary people, who are victims in various different ways. They're struggling with trauma. They're struggling with mental health issues. They're struggling with addiction in many circumstances. And what you're doing is locking them up, putting them in custody, and making it so they can't go to police to protect themselves against people who want to harm them. By giving them convictions it's making it harder for them to reintegrate themselves into society when they're able to address these issues. You're not providing them with support for these issues. The reality is you're not getting good drug treatment or mental health treatment or trauma treatment when you're in jail. When you're coming out and you try to become a cashier and they see three prostitution convictions, it isn't going to work.
So, no, we're not going to do that. We're not going to make it worse for people who we view fundamentally as victims. We need the rest of government, the rest of society to work with us, to provide them with some resources. Freedom works better than incarceration in that situation.
Similar feelings, of course, about possession of all drugs while simultaneously wanting to be a catalyst for support. We have seen tremendous success in other countries—Portugal is one—very drastically decreasing addiction. In Lisbon, there is an 80 percent reduction in the on-street persistent use of opioids over 20-plus years by getting away from cops and judges and courthouses.
You said you wouldn't seek bail except in cases where a particularly violent crime had occurred. The rationale behind this move was that jails were filling up with people who haven't been convicted of a crime. Police claim that this creates a "revolving door" because they keep arresting people over and over again. Is that true?
I don't set bail. Bail is set by judges after they hear from the defense and they hear from the prosecution, which is being skipped. When people start saying that we are somehow creating a revolving door, we're absolutely not. In fact, we are very dissatisfied in serious cases involving violent crime that the bails being imposed are way too low.
The first thing we did, 45 days into 2018: We said, for nonviolent, low-level misdemeanor offenses, where people don't present a danger, we're not going to ask for money. When you ask for money and judges put little bits of bail on people, the homeless ones, the broke ones, sit in jail. But the ones who have a job get out. Jail is not for poverty. If you present a true danger to the public, then in my view you should be in jail pending trial, because you present a true danger to the public no matter how rich you are. Money should have nothing to do with it.
But on the other hand, I don't want to be holding people in jail for $135 a night because they can't pay $100, when the person who got arrested for the same damn thing, but has a job, can get out the same day. That doesn't make any sense.
What we found after a year of taking 25 different nonviolent, nonserious offenses and not seeking money bail for those offenses was success. We found there was no increase in crime related to it. There was no increase in people failing to come to court, which is what bail is for. Freedom really was free. We are going to divorce this process from money. So if you present a real danger to the public, you can sit in jail until your trial. And if you don't, you should get out. And this should not be about money.
We have a lower number of these low bails that hold in poor people, but let out middle-class or rich people. We have a lower number, so that's progress. But we also have a higher number of high bails for people who, for example, are charged with shooting a 16-year-old at a recreation center while people are playing basketball. We have a higher number of those high bails. But are we happy? No.
We are frequently seeing a lot of bail commissioners who are used to an old system. It's a system that benefits bail bondspeople and it benefits counties. It becomes a money trough for the government. They're much more comfortable with these bails that are in the middle, and that's a problem that we're still working on.
How do you respond to critics who say this ultimately resulted in some people who didn't commit a very serious crime having this insane bail over their heads?
I respect their opinion, but I disagree. The reality is what we are trying to emulate here, in a state that's all about the cash bail, is what they've been doing in D.C. for over 30 years. Either we're going to hold you and it's not about money, or we will let you out. But D.C. also has the advantage of providing services.
Both gun homicides and armed robberies have gone way up in Philadelphia. How much blame do you deserve for the spike in violent crime in the city over the past few years?
We actually charge gun possession cases at a higher rate than those who came before us. Our conviction rate for homicides, for shootings, for homicides with guns, for rapes, for carjackings, for robberies with guns is extremely high. All of those conviction rates at the trial level are in the 80 and 90 percent levels. What you're referring to is a political narrative that serves certain people, but it is not accurate.
Gun arrests have gone up, but the success with prosecutions has not gone up. It has gone down in certain instances. What's going on is a combination of factors. One of them is that there are a lot of illegal searches that are done in these cases. I don't say that to blame anybody, but the reality is there are a lot of illegal searches. A lot of those searches are thrown out by judges because they violate the Fourth Amendment. And we cannot convict people when all the evidence is thrown out. A lot of those are cases where you have a civilian witness who absolutely will not show up no matter what we do.
We have real difficulties in solving cases. So the rate at which they're actually solving shootings means 83 out of 100 shooters get away with it. But among the 17 percent we actually get, we're getting convictions on almost nine out of 10 at the trial level.
Have you decided not to prosecute certain gun possession cases where it doesn't involve an actual violent crime?
No, that's not correct. We actually prosecute every single kind of gun possession case. You may be referring to a small number of cases, a few percent, where we have law-abiding people who are having, for example, a first offense with a lawfully purchased firearm, but are in violation of not having a piece of paper that says you can carry on the street. In those situations, we hold them accountable with consequences including community service, long-term supervision, fines and costs, and things of that sort. But we give them a pathway to avoid a conviction. We do that because we believe society will be safer if you take law-abiding people who made a mistake and did something wrong and don't make them unemployable.
There needs to be a velvet glove and a hammer. If you're dealing with people who are driving gun violence, who are out to shoot people, there needs to be a hammer. When you're dealing with people who are afraid of the other group, you don't want to turn them toward crime by making them unemployable, you want to give them that opportunity. So we hold them accountable. It's just not in this sort of simplistic old-school way where the only kind of accountability is to break your employability, your ability to get an apartment, your ability to be a provider, your capacity to earn and pay taxes and to form a family.
What do you think needs to change to decrease the Philadelphia murder rate?
I think there's a lot of things that have to change in Philly. First of all, you're dealing with the poorest of the 10 largest cities. There's no question that there is a heavy correlation between poverty and economic failure, particularly on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis, and chronic violence. Philadelphia has been a chronically violent city for decades. What has been done through traditional lock-them-up-and-hang-them-high approaches has never worked to reduce violence in Philadelphia.
So what works? Two things work. One is modern enforcement, and that includes things like some pretty amazing forensics that are now available but have not been funded. But it's never been "good politics" to put the $50 million that Philadelphia needs into a forensics lab that would allow them to go from the statistics they had a few years ago, solving 17 percent of shootings to solving 30 percent or 40 percent. That would make a huge difference in deterrence. So that is part of modern enforcement.
But the other side of it is serious investment in prevention. And that takes many, many different forms. If you view the most sacred obligation of a prosecutor's office or law enforcement as trying to prevent the next victimization, that is really a much better goal than to give somebody a life sentence after that person has taken a life. But that prevention money has to come from somewhere.
When you look and you see the decline of mental health services available in our society during the period of mass incarceration, we gutted 85 percent of mental health services. We put that money into prisons. We put it into jails. The decline of money available for education for poor people, especially public education, coincides very neatly with the growth of everything that was about locking you up and throwing away the key. We have to get these resources from somewhere.
You reduced retail theft and a few other things you consider to be lower-level crimes to be "summary offenses" that typically result in a small fine as opposed to jail. In places like San Francisco, many people complain about quality-of-life effects because the shoplifting went way up, some say because of decreased penalties for shoplifting. In Philly, property crime went up by 30 percent, commercial burglaries by 50 percent. Do you think that your policies have made quality of life worse here in Philadelphia?
No. The reality here is a lot more interesting and a lot more complex. We are seeing a big increase in property crimes right now, but if you look at the last two years, there was a big decrease in property crimes. You lock people up in their homes [during the pandemic]. You shut down businesses, and you have them sitting near their car all day.
When society came back online, people started going back to work. We saw these spikes going back up. This is also, of course, happening in a time of tremendous economic displacement.
We have a voracious, arguably out-of-control situation going with opioids that feeds much of this. It's not even true that we're punishing people less for retail theft—with the summary, you can go to jail for 90 days. What it does is it takes people out of this ridiculous process of tying up police, handcuffing people, taking them to a police station, keeping them in jail until they pay bail, which a lot of times they cannot.
Then they go to court. Then the witnesses don't show up anyway, in very high levels, because their employers don't want [their] security guards to be in court. They want security guards to be at the store. That's what it is.
Police say that there's no incentive to arrest people if it is just "a slap on the wrist." Why is that?
Let me explain how summaries work. Police charge summaries, they show up, they say, "Aha, we got you stealing this package of batteries that's worth $14." They write the charge on a piece of paper and give them a court date right then and there. They don't have to ask me to charge them. They charge them.
A lot of what's happening in Philadelphia now is staffing shortages throughout the government, but we have a very significant staffing shortage with police as well. And they are dealing with what really tears apart society, which is gun violence. I'll give you an example. We used to have a rate of 2 to 4 percent of police out injured on duty. That rate is now about 13 percent, and is 13 percent in a system where the police union picked all the doctors. I'll repeat that. It became a 13 percent stay-home-and-get-paid system, during a pandemic, in a gun violence crisis, when the Fraternal Order of Police picked all the doctors that said whether you had to come to work or not. The notion that people who have all the power in the world to charge those offenses but won't charge them, want to blame somebody else, should make you question what they're saying.
Why do you view the impending impeachment proceeding against you as illegitimate?
You impeach people for committing crimes. You impeach them for deep, deep corruption. This is a legislature that has almost never done it. It has never happened in the history of the commonwealth. They have said we're going to impeach somebody, not because that person committed any crime, but because we disagree with their ideas. Understand where this impeachment is coming from.
I was elected the first time handily, the second time with an overwhelming landslide. We got 72 percent of the vote in Philly. We got more than two-thirds of every Democrat in the primary. And in the areas most affected by gun violence—the ones where, if you bought any of this nonsense, you would think they'd be against me—I had the highest rates of support. We had rates of support that were 80 to 85 percent. That's what Philadelphia thinks about the person they freely and fairly elected.
People leading this are from hundreds of miles away. They do not live in Philadelphia. They're not permitted to vote in Philadelphia. They're from Beaver County. I did not make that name up. They are from Washington County and Adams County. Their point is, We may not live there, we can't even vote there, but our few votes out here as a legislature should allow us to remove you because we don't like your ideas. That is the end of democracy. That is the gutting of democracy. It's not a surprise that one party has a very large contingent of people who are either insurrectionists themselves, or they're election deniers, or they are essentially patronizing and supporting insurrectionists.
Are you optimistic that working toward a society that is not the most carceral country in the world will succeed?
I'm optimistic, but we've got to be honest about our history. If you look at the writings of somebody like [Just Mercy author and activist] Bryan Stevenson, he would argue that we didn't actually eliminate slavery. It morphed. It went from a strictly slave system to a system of mass incarceration. We see tremendous successes in the history of the United States, in my opinion, with things like the election of Barack Obama. And then you have the insanity of the election of somebody like Donald Trump, who I wouldn't actually let sell me a pair of shoes. Part of me knows how many people in this country are people of goodwill and resort to reason. They believe in history, science, and truth. That part of me is very optimistic. But we cannot deny the reality that there is a contingent in the United States who are fundamentally racist, who are either unscientific or anti-scientific, who do not care for democracy and probably never did.
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. The full interview can be viewed below.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Can Larry Krasner Fix Philly's Crime Problem?".