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Former Civil Rights Lawyer Krasner Puts Justice Reform into Practice as New Philly DA

by Derek Gilna

For decades, politicians have won many elections by promising to be “tough on crime,” which translated into escalating prisoner counts, unbalanced budgets, and societal disintegration of the inner city. In contrast, former civil rights attorney Larry Krasner won election as Philadelphia’s District Attorney by promising just the opposite strategy — being “smart on crime.”

Years of being tough on crime produced an electoral backlash, as Krasner was elected in a landslide. He promised widespread changes to the management of the DA’s office. Unlike many politicians who make promises to win election and promptly renege on them, Krasner apparently meant every word he said during his campaign.

His first week in office saw the firing of 31 assistant district attorneys, who apparently were not on board with the new policies and priorities.

According to Krasner’s spokesperson, “Change is never easy, but DA Krasner was given a clear mandate from the voters for transformational change.Today’s actions are necessary to achieve that agenda.”

The next step was putting the harsh light of publicity on 29 officers who were on a so-called “do not call list,” which The Intercept reported meant, “that they were so tainted that they would be considered unreliable as witnesses.” All had long disciplinary records, including lying to superiors, filing false police reports, driving drunk, and using excessive force.

However, the capstone of these changes was a multi-page roadmap outlining not only a prosecutorial philosophy long on diversion, but also a concentration on major crimes rather than minor drug cases and sex offenses. It included specific steps to be taken in all cases referred to the office for possible prosecution. According to the February 15, 2018, document, “These policies are an effort to end mass incarcerations and bring balance back to sentencing.”

The directive also focused on ending the prosecution of minor marijuana possession and paraphernalia cases. Sex workers with three or more convictions are to be sent to Dawn Court (described as a special diversionary program specifically for sex workers with repeat offenses), rather than jail. It recommends that when a sentence of less than two years is appropriate for an offense, house arrest or diversion programs should be offered.

Perhaps the most groundbreaking portion of the memo requires prosecutors to justify the expense of incarceration, which in Philadelphia runs at least $41,000 a year—equal to the city’s average family’s annual income. Noting that Philadelphia pays $360 million a year to incarcerate 6,000 individuals, Krasner makes a strong argument that more emphasis should be put on the expense of incarceration. “If you are seeking a sentence of 3 years incarceration, state on the record that the cost to the taxpayer will be $126,000.00 (3 x $42,000.00) if not more and explain why you believe the cost is justified,” he said.

Criminal justice reformers can only hope that these reforms are successful and provide a model not only to other cities and staes, but also the federal government. 

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