It was an extraordinary sight, one that played out on the local 11 o’clock news. Ex-prosecutor Richard Sax said he felt bad for the City of Philadelphia.
“[H]er citizens are really and truly going to suffer,” he told Channel 6 while the ABC affiliate rolled footage of his former colleagues hauling file boxes crammed full of framed photos and knick-knacks onto the curb at South Juniper Street.
“Change is never easy,” read a statement from the office of Larry Krasner, a civil rights attorney who famously sued the Philly police 75 times throughout his three-decade career. Sworn in as Philly’s new district attorney only three days previously, Krasner had campaigned on overhauling the criminal justice system in a city with the highest incarceration rate in the country.
It is not entirely unusual for fat to be trimmed during a change of administration, but aside from making good television, the January firings, 31 in total, inflamed Krasner’s detractors — already on high alert that a red-bellied leftist was now the city’s top attorney.
Not everyone was worried.
A radical tries to change the system from within.
“The message it sent to me was that Krasner is making good on his promise of instituting culture change,” Rick Krajewski of Reclaim Philadelphia told The Indypendent. “Prosecutors before had a lot of bad practices. They’d ask for high amounts of bail. They didn’t consider harm during their prosecutions, didn’t think about the immigration consequences. There was a cultural narrative in the DA’s office that was counter to our narrative of trying to end the over-incarceration of our communities.”
A Movement Moment
Krasner’s victory at the polls in November didn’t so much belong to him as to a grassroots social movement, years in the making, that arose in response to corruption (Krasner’s predecessor is currently serving a five-year sentence for bribery), institutionalized racism and mass incarceration. Now, as Krasner seeks to fulfill his mandate of instituting sweeping reforms to Philly’s criminal justice system, that same movement is working to hold him accountable.
“There’s a lot of diverse communities that have been banding together,” said Reuben Jones of Front Line Dads, an organization that advocates on behalf of formerly incarcerated men, among whom Jones counts himself. This coalition of coalitions, Jones told me, includes immigrants, millennials, LGBTQ folks, mothers and survivors of gun violence as well as “incarcerated men and women who are coming home to roll their sleeves up to join this fight.”
“You have political lifers who have been engaged in the political landscape in Philadelphia for 20 or 30 years and are now seeing things a little bit differently,” Jones said.
Just nine months prior to the January firings, Krasner — his ever-present tie loosened, the sleeves of his white Oxford shirt rolled up — appeared on stage with Philly punks Sheer Mag, joining the band in a rendition of “Clampdown” by the Clash. Alternately brooding, sarcastic and defiant, the song is a rejection of encroaching fascism. “Let fury have the hour, anger can be power,” Krasner sang, “D’you know that you can use it?”
Use it voters did. Now the tune is “Rock the Casbah.”
Efforts to end what legal scholar Michelle Alexander termed the “New Jim Crow” have stalled on the federal level with the appointment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. However, even before Donald Trump’s election, progressives inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement knocked off entrenched DAs in Cleveland and Chicago. As was the case in Philadelphia, the financial support of billionaire philanthropist George Soros helped. Reform candidates have also prevailed in Mississippi, Louisiana and New Mexico and activists are targeting more district attorney races in this fall’s elections.
New Yorkers won’t be able to vote in a DA race until 2021, but each of the five borough DA offices could use a house cleaning.
In Manhattan, Cyrus Vance Jr. short-circuited the case against Harvey Weinstein, despite the NYPD providing him secretly recorded statements by the Hollywood mogul admitting to sexual assault. Soon after, he received a campaign contribution from Weinstein’s lawyer. The Brooklyn DA’s office was a false conviction factory for decades and its current leader, Erik Gonzalez, has been reluctant to hold key figures accountable (see page 6). In Queens, Richard Brown is 85 years old and has not faced a serious electoral challenger since he took the post in 1991. The district attorney’s office in Staten Island went out of its way to persuade a grand jury not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choking death of Eric “I Can’t Breathe” Garner and Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark has made headlines of late over allegations that she presided over an office rampant with debauchery.
When they do have a chance to go to the polls in DA races, events in Philadelphia could provide a path for how activists with financial support from well-heeled liberal reformers like Soros can enact sweeping change. Of a new crop of district attorneys taking office, Krasner has the most radical pedigree and could end up defining the outer limits of what is possible from within the system.
Remarkably, not four years earlier Philly’s movement against mass incarceration was on the defensive, fending off plans to build a new, 3,000-bed jail. After a months-long campaign of marches and civil disobediences, the City Council rejected the expansion. Aware that all their grassroots efforts would simply mean overcrowding at the city’s five remaining jails, where 20 percent of detainees are locked up because they can’t afford to get out in advance of their trials, activists began calling for the elimination of cash bail. This effort prompted them to consider participating in the district attorney’s race. The Coalition for a Just DA formed.
“We started hunting around for a progressive candidate to support,” Jones told The Indy. “Krasner rose to the top.”
The transition represented a move from an outside strategy to an inside one. Groups that had typically sought to sway elected officials through protest were now going door-to-door, flyering and making phone calls on behalf of one of their own. And it appears to have paid off.
In his initial three months as district attorney, Krasner announced he will stop prosecuting low-level marijuana offenses, filed a lawsuit against Big Pharma over the opioid epidemic, appointed the city’s first-ever “immigration council” to protect the undocumented from apprehension while attending court proceedings and instructed his prosecutors not to seek cash bail for 25 mainly nonviolent offenses, including shoplifting and prostitution. He and his staff have also been meeting regularly with the grassroots activists who got him elected.
“It is not just token engagement,” says Cara Tratner, a criminal justice reform advocate who has attended the monthly meetings. “They are really listening and they are acknowledging the expertise of community organizers and activists, people who are directly impacted in the room, and they are seeking our support in creating their policy and have been very transparent.”
Still, Reuben Jones acknowledges that Krasner is in a “difficult position.”
“He came into this role not being a politician and now he has to play politics,” Jones said.
Police Union Pushback
As anyone who has watched the opening sequence of “Law and Order” knows, the criminal justice system is made up of “police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders.”
Krasner’s job depends on his ability not only to appease the electorate but to maintain a working relationship with Philly’s cops, whose union leadership has displayed a kneejerk loathing toward him. When, in February, Krasner visited the city’s police academy and told officers-in-training they must understand they will be “held to a higher standard,” the head of Philly’s Fraternal Order of the Police, John McNesby, called Krasner’s remarks “ridiculous and dangerous,” accusing the DA of having “intentionally sought to endanger your lives.” It later emerged that McNesby had no idea what Krasner had actually said during the meeting. The very thought of Krasner visiting the academy launched him into a tirade.
While McNesby worries Krasner will go too far, Cara Tratner frets he won’t go far enough.
“We’re glad that he stopped using bail for some people,” Tratner said, “but were also disappointed that his office used charge categories” to determine when to seek it. The Coalition for a Just DA wants the practice of money bail eliminated altogether. A spokesperson for Krasner, Benjamin Waxman, told The Indy that the DA’s office is taking an “A-B-C approach” but Tratner is concerned that the distinction between what types of offenses warrant bail will make it more difficult to further roll back the detainer system. The public will think future bail reforms are for violent offenders.
“Even if you are doing it step by step, you don’t want to take a step that will make it harder to then take a second step,” Tratner said.
It’s a precarious path, but none of the activists I spoke with doubts Krasner’s sincerity. Most are impressed with what they are witnessing. Reclaim Philadelphia’s Rick Krajewski see’s Krasner’s election as a “springboard.”
“Right now, you can take a more progressive stand on criminal justice issues than you could a few years ago,” he said. “If we can reproduce that when it comes to education, economic equality, housing; if we can find candidates who are willing to stick their necks out there and take bold stances on those issues we can incrementally push our city to one that is more progressive.”
Illustration by Michael Grant.