Monday Morning Thoughts: Ending Mass Incarceration and Reinventing the Role of the Modern Prosecutor


Mass IncarcerationThe New Yorker this week has a feature article on Larry Krasner, the reform-minded district attorney of Philadelphia.  After watching Dean Johansson this year nearly pull off his own improbable run, it was interesting to read some of the early comments on Mr. Krasner’s run.

This is a man who wore a ponytail into his late 40s.  In 1993, he opened his own law firm that “went on to file more than seventy-five lawsuits against the police, alleging brutality and misconduct.”  In his spare time, “he worked pro bono, representing members of ACT UP, Occupy Philadelphia, and Black Lives Matter.”

According to the article, when he told the six-person staff of his firm that he was running for DA, “they erupted in laughter.”  On February 8, he announced his candidacy with a speech in which he attacked the culture of the DA’s office, accusing prosecutors of embracing “bigger, meaner mandatory sentencing.” He accused the office, too, of casting a “very wide net,” which had “brought black and brown people from less prosperous neighborhoods into the system when that was in fact unnecessary and destructive.”

“The president of the police union pronounced Krasner’s candidacy ‘hilarious,'” they write.  They note that “Krasner received no mainstream-newspaper endorsements and, at first, was supported by only a few Democratic elected officials.”  (Sound familiar?)

Twelve former prosecutors who worked under then-current DA Seth Williams wrote a letter: “While it might be demoralizing to work for someone who is federally indicted, imagine working for someone who has openly demonized what you do every day,” it read. “Why work for someone that reviles a career you are passionate about?”

But times were changing.  “In 2015, Philadelphia had the highest incarceration rate of America’s ten largest cities. As its population grew more racially diverse and a new generation became politically active, its ‘tough on crime’ policies fell further out of synch with its residents’ views.”

The article notes that “at a local level, there are signs of change. Krasner is one of about two dozen ‘progressive prosecutors,’ many of them backed by Soros, who have won recent district-attorney races.”

“If you are really concerned about how the criminal-justice system treats African-Americans, the best way to protest is to vote,” former President Barack Obama said on September 7. “Do what they just did in Philadelphia and Boston and elect state attorneys and district attorneys who are looking at issues in a new light.”

Mr. Krasner talks about his ambition to make Philadelphia the most progressive DA’s office in the country, “but he knows that he faces an almost insurmountable challenge. Resistance comes not only from the lawyers he now supervises but also from some judges, many of whom are former prosecutors.”

“They are being forced to look back on their entire careers and say to themselves, Did I get it all wrong as a prosecutor? Have I gotten it all wrong as a judge? All these years coming down with twenty-five years when it should’ve been ten? And ten when it could’ve been two? He went on, ‘It takes a pretty remarkable human being, who turned down big law firms, turned down big money, to do public service, to say, ‘Damn, I screwed up, I’ve been doing it wrong all this time, I think I’ll just fall into line with what it is these progressive prosecutors want to do.’ That’s hard.’”

The New Yorker relates a story of training new Assistant DAs.  Mr. Krasner opens with the question: “Who here has read Michelle Alexander?

“Well, even if you haven’t read it,” he said, “open the flyleaf. Look at the stats. There are more people of color in jail, in prison, on probation and parole than there were in slavery at the beginning of the Civil War.”

When Mr. Krasner took office, he had “a list of prosecutors who he believed would resist his efforts to change the office; he had fought many of them in court.

“Thirty-one employees received calls telling them to come in and reported to the office. One by one, they were asked to resign; if they didn’t, they were told, they would be fired on Monday.”

The New Yorker reports that by February, “Krasner had hired sixteen new lawyers, many of them former public defenders whom he knew.”

In March, he sent a memo to his staff outlining his policies, which he described as “an effort to end mass incarceration and bring balance back to sentencing.”

Few of the ideas were truly new: “[M]any progressive prosecutors have stopped prosecuting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana, for instance, or have increased the number of people diverted from prison into drug-rehab programs—but the memo caught on in criminal-justice circles, arguably because of one recommendation: each time a prosecutor wanted to send somebody to prison, he had to calculate the cost of that imprisonment (an estimated forty-two thousand dollars per inmate per year), state it aloud in court, and explain the ‘unique benefits’ of the punishment.

James Forman, author of Locking Up Our Own (who also endorsed Johansson), told the New Yorker, “Nobody seems to ask the questions of prison that we ever ask of any other aspect of the system. Nobody says, ‘Well, if prison didn’t work last time, maybe we shouldn’t try it the next time.’ ”

Mr. Krasner continues to be at war with the police.  On March 8, for example, “former prosecutors held an event at the Fraternal Order of Police lodge to honor the thirty-one prosecutors whom Krasner had fired.” “Please join us as we celebrate our former colleagues who worked tirelessly on behalf of crime victims and the citizens of the City of Philadelphia,” the invitation read.

The New Yorker relates the story from June when the media learned that Mr. Krasner’s office “had offered a plea deal to the two brothers who had killed Sergeant Robert Wilson III while trying to rob a video-game shop in 2015. In exchange for pleading guilty, they would be sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus an additional fifty to a hundred years, rather than given the death penalty.”

Despite the fact that the death penalty in Pennsylvania is sort of like the death penalty in California, no one has been executed since 1999 and there is a moratorium on executions as of 2015, police officers were outraged and disgusted by the plea agreement.

Meanwhile, in September Mr. Krasner’s office enraged the union again when they “filed first-degree-murder charges against a former police officer named Ryan Pownall, who had shot a thirty-year-old man in the summer of 2017. The victim, David Jones, had been riding a dirt bike when Pownall stopped him, patted him down, and felt a gun. Jones bolted and dropped his weapon, but the officer fired at him anyway, striking him twice in the back and killing him. These were the first such charges in nearly twenty years brought against a Philadelphia cop for an on-duty shooting.”

However, the New Yorker notes that “it was the second time that Pownall, who is white, had shot an African-American man in the back while in uniform. The first shooting, seven years earlier, left the victim paralyzed.”

Writes the New Yorker: “Krasner is unfazed by the union’s ire. In his view, the union does not represent the will or the views of many of the sixty-three hundred officers on Philadelphia’s police force, who, he said, ‘want accountability, they want integrity.’ Krasner has called the union ‘frankly racist and white-dominated,’ and reminds people that it endorsed Trump for President ‘in a city where he got fifteen per cent of the vote.’”

Read the full New Yorker article here:

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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