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What Does the Philadelphia D.A. Do Now?

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 9/23/2022 Ronald Brownstein
© Matt Rourke / AP

Larry Krasner has been at the forefront of the progressive-prosecutor movement since becoming Philadelphia’s district attorney in 2017. Which means that he has also been at the center of an unending storm.

Krasner has faced relentless battles with the police union, other local elected officials, and Republicans who control the Pennsylvania state legislature and are now making an unprecedented effort to impeach him. He’s also won support from many community leaders and criminal-justice-reform advocates. On Wednesday he reached a milestone: His office won a manslaughter conviction against a Philadelphia police officer for shooting a Black man in 2017—the first such conviction for on-duty action in Philadelphia in at least half a century.

[Darcy Covert: The false hope of the progressive-prosecutor movement]

Yet, like other progressive prosecutors in major cities from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles to San Francisco, his political position remains precarious. These prosecutors received a huge burst of momentum from the nationwide protests that erupted after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. And they have an aggressive agenda aimed at reducing jail and prison populations, elevating alternatives to incarceration (particularly for juvenile offenders), emphasizing community services over tough enforcement to reduce gun violence, and imposing greater accountability for police-officer misconduct. (Beyond Wednesday’s conviction, Krasner is pursuing murder cases against two other police officers; previously no murder case involving a Philadelphia police officer had gone to trial in almost 40 years, The Philadelphia Inquirer found.)

But rising crime rates have weakened these prosecutors’ standing. Though violent crime, particularly homicides, remains far below its peak, in the 1990s, the rates in many major cities spiked at the height of the pandemic to levels far above the totals earlier in this century—and have remained stubbornly high since. As of Monday, Philadelphia, for instance, has experienced 388 homicides this year, slightly more than in 2021 and double the number through that date as recently as 2015.

Criminologists say the causes of these increases are complex. And crime rates often rise faster in places committed to traditional hard-line policing and prosecutorial policies, as the centrist Democratic group Third Way showed in an eye-opening report earlier this year. (The murder rate in red counties outside Pittsburgh grew much faster than Philadelphia’s did from 2019 through 2021, Krasner’s office pointed out to me.) Krasner and his allies in Philadelphia cite the Republican-controlled legislature’s repeated rejection of stronger gun laws, such as red-flag statutes and universal background checks, as a key cause of the city’s endemic gun violence.

Yet none of this has insulated progressive prosecutors from an intensifying backlash. San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin was recalled earlier this year; like-minded Los Angeles D.A. George Gascón narrowly avoided a recall election because opponents bungled their petition-gathering effort.

[Annie Lowrey: The people vs. Chesa Boudin]

The decision by the Pennsylvania General Assembly to explore impeaching Krasner marks the latest challenge to the movement. Last week the chamber voted to hold Krasner in contempt when he refused to provide documents it demanded as part of the probe. Krasner, for his part, has filed suit in state court arguing that the legislature lacks the authority to remove him, primarily because its impeachment power, under the state constitution, is limited to state officials, not local ones.

Craig Green, a law professor at Temple University, told me he thinks Krasner is likely to win that argument. The General Assembly, Green says, has “never tried anything” like this possible impeachment before, even in cases where local officials were guilty of gross misconduct and corruption, which no one has alleged against Krasner. Craig is dubious that the state supreme court will conclude that the legislature’s disapproval of Krasner’s policy choices meets the standard of “improper or corrupt motive” the court has set as justifiable grounds for a potential impeachment.

Even if Krasner doesn’t win in court, Republicans don’t have enough votes in the State Senate to reach the two-thirds majority they would need to remove him should the House impeach him. But the controversy over his approach isn’t going anywhere, either, particularly as Philadelphia struggles with the wave of gun violence that has spilled out from long impoverished neighborhoods on the north and west sides into its rejuvenated Center City. More than 1,700 people have been shot in the city this year, police statistics show.

Yesterday at The Atlantic Festival, I sat down with Krasner to discuss his battles with the state legislature, his diagnosis for the rising crime rate, and his continued commitment to rethinking how the criminal-justice system operates. Below are highlights from that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Ronald Brownstein: Mr. District Attorney, you have been in the center of the storm since your election in 2017. And you’ve certainly got one brewing now with the Republican-controlled General Assembly in Pennsylvania trying to impeach you. Why is this happening, and where is it going?

Larry Krasner: It’s happening because progressive prosecutors keep winning elections. There is a misperception that we’re losing; that’s actually incorrect. They can’t beat us in elections, so they try to remove us from office in other ways: by recalls, by impeachment. In my situation, what occurred is, for the first time in the history of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the legislature is trying to remove an elected official for their policies. I repeat: policies. You can get removed for crimes or deeply corrupt activity. That’s what impeachment is for. But you’re not supposed to be removed because your policy won by a landslide.

Brownstein: Can they remove, in your view, a local official as opposed to a statewide official?

Krasner: No, in my view, they can only remove statewide officials, because there is a separate impeachment procedure for cities. And I happen to be in a city.

[David A. Graham: How criminal-justice reform fell apart]

Brownstein: Well, the policy dispute is obviously about your approach and what is happening with crime in Philadelphia. And [according to] the police department, there have been 388 homicides in Philadelphia. That was the figure through Monday. We are still not back up to the levels of crime that we saw in the 1990s, but we are at an elevated rate from earlier in the century, not only in Philadelphia but in many other cities. What’s driving this?

Krasner: Well, there’s been an uptick really since 2014 in Philadelphia. That’s more or less the low point nationally. I think a lot of things are driving this. But the main thing I bring up is guns. There are more and more and more guns every year. And if you look at the number of guns that are actually removed from the street by law enforcement, they are at least doubled or tripled by the new legal gun sales that are occurring. We have seen an accumulation of guns in this country at this point where we have one and a half guns per human being, more or less. And we have an NRA that would like to see a loaded gun tucked into a diaper. This is an NRA that would like silencers, which hasn’t happened since the 1930s. They would like us to be able to print our guns at home on 3-D printers. [It’s] the most damaging organization to public safety in the history of the United States.

Brownstein: Let me ask you about guns, because that is certainly one of the flash points in the debate about your approach in Philadelphia. It’s also been a flash point in L.A., where I live: what to do with people who are caught with guns but haven’t used them yet in a crime. Your view, as quoted recently in The New York Times, is that it’s counterproductive to focus on arresting and incarcerating people caught carrying firearms without legal permit. Why do you think that?

Krasner: So that view is not correct. It’s counterproductive to prioritize that more than solving gun violence. The reality is that if you want to stop gun violence, you should pursue gun violence. That means you should solve homicides. You should solve shootings. The current solve rate, or at least the most recent measured solve rate for gun homicides in Philly, is 28 percent. The most recent solve rate for shootings in Philly is 17 percent. Our conviction rate for homicides is approaching 90 percent; better than our predecessors, but we only get the cases [police officers] solve.

So a lot of what has happened all across the country is coming from [fraternal-order-of-police] sources, right-wing sources: that the real problem is guns; it’s not the homicides. And the reason they’re saying that is they’re having terrible difficulty solving the homicides. I do not say that, by the way, to besmirch the police. There are certain tools that they need. There are modern ways to actually solve these cases, including some absolutely unbelievable forensics that would blow your mind. But you’ve got to invest in them.

Brownstein: You had a landmark conviction of a police officer this week, which we’ll talk about in a moment. But I want to just be clear: What is your view about what should happen to people who are found with guns who have not yet committed a crime? Are you saying that they should in fact be prosecuted on a routine basis?

Krasner: Yes, they should. And the fact is that the House itself, before they decided to impeach me, did a study and found that the sentences for gun possession were longest in Philadelphia. Just so we understand what’s really happening here. This is not coming from some real concern about crime. Our city is giving out longer sentences, including under my administration. So that’s a total red herring.

Brownstein: Many of the other progressive prosecutors have talked about treating gun violence as a public-health problem. Again, the statistics as of Monday: 1,700 shooting victims. In Philadelphia, what have you learned about the opportunities and limits of a public-health strategy to combat gun violence? Do you feel like it’s stemming the tide with those kinds of numbers?

Krasner: I’ve learned we haven’t tried it. This is a country that has not used public health to try to deal with addiction. We have not used public health to deal with mental illness and homelessness. We haven’t used public health to deal with criminal justice. Even though we do have reform going on in ways that are constructive, all of the money that’s being saved, which is an enormous amount of money, is not going back into rebuilding the mental-health system that was torn down about 85 percent during the period of mass incarceration. All that money is not going into public schools. And in Philadelphia, public-school kids are funded at half the level of the surrounding counties. But that’s another enormous problem. If we don’t take the money that we’re saving from doing stupid and put it into smart, then all we’re doing is building another tax break for wealthy people, and there is going to be some level of failing to succeed as much as we could.

Brownstein: So give me your wish list to reduce those 1,700 shootings.

Krasner: On the enforcement side, the biggest thing that we should be doing is investing very, very heavily in modern forensics. You can do absolutely amazing things with cellphones that we could not do before. You can do amazing things right now with tiny bits of DNA. You can do amazing things that would solve an enormous number of cases. And until we do that, the notion of deterrence is really not there.

I don’t know why we are allowing anybody to have an AR-15. I don’t know why we’re allowing [young] people … to get them. I don’t know why we have gun shows at all. I don’t know why we have unregistered gun parts. I mean, the whole notion of a polymer gun or a ghost gun is that it’s a loophole. You can get an unmarked piece of plastic and a bunch of unmarked pieces of metal that you can buy on the internet. You can put them together in your basement and you can sell an arsenal round out the back door. And we see more and more ghost guns that are showing up at crime scenes, and it’s doubling and tripling and quadrupling every year.

[Read: The real reason America doesn’t have gun control]

Brownstein: Some of the prosecutors elected as part of this movement have opposed cash bail, sometimes in all cases. But you have taken a different approach, a more nuanced approach. You support high cash bail in cases of gun violence.

Krasner: There’s a general misunderstanding of what “no cash bail” is. No cash bail has happened in D.C. for over 30 years. There’s only two stops on this train. One stop is you get out without having to pay money. You may have to go to a place that provides homeless services or mental-health services or addiction services, because whatever they’re sending you to is associated with your interaction with police. And those are nonviolent offenses, for the most part. But then there’s the other group who sit in jail, no matter how rich they are.

But the problem in Pennsylvania is you’ve got a legislature that likes its bail-bonds people, makes a lot of money in donations off of their lobbyists, and they are in love with cash bail. What we did in Philly is we tried to simulate a no-cash-bail system by asking for very high bail, which is a million or more in some cases. And then no bail; we don’t ask for these $10,000 bail, $50,000 bail amounts, because they just make things worse.

Brownstein: You won a landmark conviction of a police officer for an on-duty shooting, a manslaughter conviction—the first one, I believe, in at least 50 years. You have several more in the pipeline. What is the message you are sending with these cases?

Krasner: The message is what it always should have been, which is that justice applies to everybody. We probably cleared 150 or 200 shootings toward or of civilians by police in uniform. But we have charged three officers with homicide so far. And I mean, to me, this is not complicated. If you commit a murder, if you shoot an unarmed person in the back and you don’t have a lawful justification, the fact that you’re in uniform doesn’t excuse that.

[There are] a lot of really great cops in Philly. They just have a rotten leadership of their union. But there are a lot of really good cops in Philadelphia who are trying to do it the right way. And every time we knock down a corrupt police officer or a vicious, brutal police officer, we’re just lifting up the good ones, which also hasn’t been done in forever.

Brownstein: There’s a sense that this [progressive-prosecutor] movement is on the defensive now, as you noted, with the recall of Chesa Boudin in San Francisco, the attempted recall of Gascón, the fight that you are facing in Pennsylvania. Is it possible to maintain support for alternative approaches that focus less on incarceration while crime is going up?

Krasner: The way to get it under control is criminal-justice reform, because doing things in a just way actually does make us safer. And I know that sounds like a platitude. But let me just give you an example of why I think they’re really at our throats.

So, 10 years ago, there were essentially zero progressive prosecutors and no portion of the U.S. population lived in a jurisdiction with a progressive prosecutor. Two and a half years ago, 10 percent of the U.S. population [did]. Right now it’s about 20 percent; 70, 75 million Americans have elected or reelected a progressive prosecutor. They all want to talk all day about Chesa Boudin and his recall, all that. They want to talk about that. Who here knows that we have a new district attorney in Memphis who is a progressive and replaced a very conservative incumbent? Who here knows that in Alameda County, right across from San Francisco, Pamela Price is about to win and win big? And she lost four years ago. It is not the case that progressive prosecution is dead in action. The real case here is that even in this incredibly difficult time, it’s maintaining. I wouldn't say it’s growing, you know, doubling in leaps and bounds like it did around the events surrounding George Floyd. But it is maintaining. So the reality is we’re doing really well, and they can’t beat us in elections, and they’re worried about that.

The truth is, conservatives don’t actually care very much about crime. They really don’t. What they’re really worried about is that criminal-justice reform is something that connects to voters who are unlikely voters who are alienated from the system, who finally are seeing some reason to go to the polls, which is why we had insane turnouts in our off-year, low-turnout elections both times I ran. And we’ve seen this in many other jurisdictions. If I am a MAGA Republican, the last thing I want to see is any progressive prosecutor still standing. Because what it could be is the salvation of democracy. And they are out to destroy democracy.

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