Into the Philadelphia D.A.’s Office
Trymaine Lee: In the South, Confederate monuments have come tumbling down. Meanwhile, it got less attention. But in the middle of the night, miles north of the Mason-Dixon line, in the city of Philadelphia, another monument got hauled away. It's a bronze statue of a legendary Philadelphia figure named Frank Rizzo.
Rizzo was a beat cop in the 1940s, became police commissioner in 1967, and served two terms as mayor in the '70s. Rizzo was a notorious law-and-order man. He and his police department became know nationwide for brutality and racism. Here he is in 1967, from an NBC News report.
Frank Rizzo: You act properly, we act properly. You get tough, we get tougher. And that's the answer. I know of no other way to do it.
Lee: He once said, "If the prisons are crowded, if we need more prisons, let's build them." Frank Rizzo's legacy still casts a long shadow over the city of Philadelphia, which, by the way, is my adopted home. But these days, the city is known for a very different approach to criminal justice.
Larry Krasner: We really are a danger to the status quo's mad love of mass incarceration. We really are. We should be.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, I talk with Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner, the city's top prosecutor. He's one of several DAs elected across the country recently who want to reform the system from the inside. Krasner has had to contend with a resistant police union known as the FOP (or the Fraternal Order of Police), judges who reject his recommendations, and now a deadly spike in gun violence. And there's that long shadow of Frank Rizzo.
Krasner: You know, Rizzo used to make jokes about how many liberals were gonna jump off the bridge into the river. He'd be a rich man if he'd get a quarter for everyone who did that when he got elected. He used to say things about Black Panthers. You know, "Black Panthers should be strung up," by the law I mean.
One of his favorite phrases was "scappo il capo," which means "break the head." He was known to show up at formal events wearing a tuxedo with his baton, his police baton, stuffed into the cummerbund. I mean, that's what we're talking about, is this basically neo-fascist, larger-than-life figure.
And the truth is even though he passed away in I guess it was 1991, his long shadow has really been messin' with the city forever. It is still Frank Rizzo's voice that is telling, you know, the FOP what to do. It's not a modern voice in that regard because the union itself is controlled by its retired members.
And there's a lotta great cops, great current decent cops and plenty of decent retirees as well, but they're really not the voice you hear coming from the police union. It's a national problem. And in Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo in particular really does embody that brutality and that racism. And I am absolutely thrilled his statue is gone.
Lee: You came into office in 2017, and there were a number of other really progressive district attorneys across the country who also were elected. And I always wonder: What happens when a progressive DA comes up against a spike in gun violence or a spike in crime? Right now in Philadelphia, shootings are up 31%, homicides are up 20%. How do you negotiate the space?
Krasner: Well, you know, it's complicated. I mean, let's be honest. And there tends to be tremendous focus on gun violence, sometimes to the exclusion of other crimes. I mean, for example, this year violent crime is actually down in Philadelphia overall, and that's a category that includes homicides, includes shootings.
We've had remarkable decreases in rapes over the last three years. In no way I am trying to minimize how serious it is to have this level of gun violence, shootings, homicides. I think some of the factors that are in play are that there are far fewer witnesses on the street right now, that the young people who were involved at one end of the gun or another, a lot of them don't believe they're gonna live to be 30.
And so they're not wearin' masks and they're not stayin' home. And a lot of other people who are more cautious are wearing masks and stayin' home. So therefore what you're seeing is a self-selecting group of people who are out in the street, maybe more able to do what they were doing before because there are not these witnesses.
You know, if they are looking for someone let's just say to retaliate for some reason, if they're looking for that person, there aren't restaurants open. There aren't stores open. There aren't a whole lotta places where that person is liable to be other than eventually at home.
So the capacity to lurk outside of somebody's home, to wait until the car they recognize pulls up, to jump out, and to injure or kill that person is somewhat greater than it is in normal times. It's rampant around the country. Even cities that have seen big advances, for example Chicago (where my friend Kim Foxx is the DA), saw a very significant reduction in homicides and shootings over two years, only in the pandemic to see it go back up again.
New York City, we're seeing a significant spike in gun violence. You know, it's a difficult space because what happens in criminal justice has been much more about emotion and fear than let's say what happens in medicine, you know? Nobody says Dr. Fauci caused a pandemic. But when it comes to this particular field, especially if you stand for something that is change, that looks like progress, when bad things happen, it turns out it's all your fault.
Lee: But when more bullets are hitting bodies and those bodies are hitting the streets, it does become kind of a political issue. And how do you respond to this actual moment?
Krasner: I mean, I think one of the things you do is you do a Fauci, which is you tell the truth. You know, the truth is that poverty equals bullets. And poverty has always equaled bullets. The truth is we haven't dealt with poverty. You know, we haven't dealt with all kinds of things. And in many ways, the criminal justice system has caused this problem.
Because when you break people, you break their communities and you break their families. So we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that a lot of this is deeply systemic, it is structural. When we look to the pandemic though, it is obvious as we look around the country that there is this sharp spike.
And I think, you know, some of what's going on here is the desperation that is economic, the desperation that relates to unemployment. We are also talking about a situation in which the truth is our country is more flooded with guns than it ever was before. That has clearly been a pattern that's continued from 2014, which was a national low point for a lot of violence (including gun violence) till now.
We have the same situation happening with drugs as we do with guns, which is that we have more drugs than ever. They're either more potent, or they're cheaper, or both. You have to on the one hand resort to intelligent traditional enforcement, hopefully modernized.
But on the other hand, you have to do what has not been done in the past, which is community building, which is building up society, which is doing the kinds of things that when they are successful, the investments in community-based organizations correspond with a reduction in crime and a reduction in jails that are simultaneous.
Lee: You campaigned and won on the idea of reform, and I wonder how your approach to gun crime is different than the traditional approach that we've seen.
Krasner: Well, I participate in shooting calls all the time, meaning multi-law enforcement agencies where we look at the actual shootings that have occurred that week and try to figure out strategies to deal with it. And what you will hear over and over is this particular mentality, which is they will describe someone who either got shot or is alleged to have been the shooter.
They'll list all of the arrests that they've had, all the contacts they've had as if what they're doing is they're explaining that these are people of terrible character and that explains this phenomenon. "And we'll all be safe if we just lock up these people of terrible character forever."
But what they're not saying is this system has engaged this person, arrested this person 15 times, convicted them seven times, put them in jail four times, and nothing worked. It all failed. They're not owning that. So it is obvious to me that we have needed to go a different direction for a very long time. It ain't working.
Lee: The one thing that it does do though is give police a bunch of hammers, right? And you look around. There are a buncha nails. And I wonder when you have a more humane approach and if you want to scale back on that tough-on-crime kinda rhetoric and policy, does that actually put these police in an identity crisis? Does it demoralize them? They say, "We're cops. We want to go out there and hit these nails." But are they in fact demoralized by this?
Krasner: I don't think the good ones are because, you know, I think there's an awful lot of good cops. These are not folks who like to go and harass Black high school students at a bus stop every day. But when they work in a system that requires them to do that, requires them to pursue illegal stop and frisk or driving while Black, it's what they do.
And the problem that I have as a prosecutor is I can't get witnesses. You're dealing with neighborhoods that essentially feel like they have been mistreated and occupied by an army. And they will not come forward as witnesses. So, you know, the police who keep saying, "Lemme hammer the nail," well, your hammerin' the nail has done nothing but break your thumb.
Lee: You know, speakin' of some of those communities when you think about Kensington, a thousand people last year died of overdoses in Philadelphia. And there have been complaints from people in that community, sayin', "You know, you're not doing enough to lock up (LAUGH) some of these criminals, and drug dealers, and everything out here." What's the middle ground? What has worked and what hasn't worked, especially when it comes to those drug crimes?
Krasner: The situation is that we prosecute all drug dealing, all of it. What we have done, which I do not think should be very controversial, is first we said, "We are not gonna bring criminal charges for the mere possession of marijuana." And next, we have said that for all mere possession, not dealing but mere possession of drugs, we are going to try to divert it.
In other words, you'll be charged, you'll be prosecuted, but we will try to find a way for you to get treatment or be accountable in some other fashion because we don't want to take those folks and then eliminate their capacity to become employed.
But I would much rather see them get treatment, at least the ones who are addicted. Not everybody with a bag of weed in their pocket's addicted. But I would much rather see that than this idiotic process of simply breaking them, breaking their capacity to become employed.
And I would like to see that even more when we look at the reality, which is that there is a completely different level of enforcement in poor and Black and brown neighborhoods than there are in affluent white neighborhoods. Those kids in the affluent white neighborhoods are walking around with drugs in their pockets.
So the over-enforcement or the selective enforcement of certain areas have become this engine of discrimination and disenfranchisement from participation in the economy, from becoming a provider, from the formation of families, among many other things. And it makes no sense in the context of people who are simply possessing rather than selling drugs.
Lee: After the break, Larry Krasner on his unlikely path to the DA's office and why he wanted the job in the first place. We'll be right back.
Lee: When Larry Krasner ran for DA, he had never prosecuted a single case. In fact, he had sued the Philadelphia Police Department dozens of times. Krasner was born in St. Louis, moved to Philly when he was eight years old, and after college in Chicago and law school in California moved back to find a job.
Krasner: I ended up interviewing both to be a prosecutor and to be a defense attorney in a public defender's office. Felt a little closer honestly at that time with the culture of public defenders than the culture of prosecutors I was seeing during these interviews.
Spent five years being a state and federal defender, and then decided I really wanted to do my own law firm because I wanted also to be able to file civil rights lawsuits. It was apparent to me that there was really no check on police misbehavior, violence, perjury.
It was certainly not coming from the prosecutor's office. And I also really had a deep fascination with protest and I wanted to be able to represent protesters not only when they were prosecuted by the Philly DA's office, which was all the time, but I also wanted to be able to represent them by bringing civil rights lawsuits when they got their, you know, skulls fractured.
So went out, spent 25 years either alone or with other attorneys in partnerships practicing as a criminal defense attorney. And at age 56, was pretty fed up and disgusted with what I had seen in the DA's office in Philly and the candidates I saw steppin' up one more time to run. So I decided to run.
There are some really remarkable people who are chief prosecutors, you know? And all of us are technicians for a movement that is a people's movement. And, you know, that's what we're doing. We're making some pretty big changes and we're having some pretty big success.
Lee: So here you are now as the DA, and I wonder: What's been your biggest accomplishment?
Krasner: I think that among our biggest accomplishments are the fact that we are generating about half as many future years of incarceration as prior administrations did. If you want to know are you doing something about ending mass incarceration, you have to figure out how many future years of custody is this system generating.
And so we did that. We have the ability to look at data and see comin' outta the Philly courts what are the total number of years you've generated. We've done the same thing for supervision. And by supervision I mean parole (which happens after custody), probation (which happens instead of custody).
We have cut future years of incarceration coming out of Philly as compared to the administration before us about 50%. And we have cut future supervision about 60-75% in a city that is arguably the most over-supervised city in the United States, in a state that is the second most over-supervised state in the United States.
These are real improvements. They're real gains. You might not see immediately because, you know, as I said, there's plenty of people already in jail whose sentences are already determined. But it is somethin' that you start to see more and more as you move forward.
Simultaneously, the reality is that, you know, we are still giving out plenty of long sentences to people for truly serious violent crime, and appropriately so. The whole system is not just supposed to let people loose. And that is what our data shows.
Our data shows that we have been true to our commitment that there should be mercy, that it is better for society to work on a rehabilitative and preventative aspect at the one end but there still has to be accountability for truly serious and truly violent crime.
Lee: You're up for reelection in 2021, and I wonder if there is actual political pressure to bend, to shift, to change enough to stay in office to continue to put forward the reforms that you believe in.
Krasner: I think there's always pressure. But I can tell you this: One of the things that we can run on is that some people love us too much and some people hate us too much, but it's simply because we did exactly what we said we would do. I mean, that's the thing that knocks a lotta people out, is that if they were opposed to us completely, they're even more opposed now because we did what we said.
If they liked what we were saying, then they're on the team because we did what we said. It's hard to do things that change the system. It's especially hard when you have other stakeholders in the system that don't want to go with you. But I think the truth is as I walk around and as I talk to people, the truth is there's an awful lotta average people who like what they see.
They know that we're not perfect. They know we make mistakes. But what I hear over and over is this phrase: "You're trying to be fair." Think about that for a second. "You're trying to be fair," is good enough for a lot of people because they're so used to prosecutors not even trying to be fair. You know, I think it says a lot and there's a lotta good faith that we feel, even when we miss the mark, even when our policies are off base a little bit. There's a lotta good faith because they think we are actually trying to be fair.
Lee: Larry Krasner, thank you so much as I pull for my adopted city of Philadelphia. And I wish the city the best. I wish you the best. And thank you for trying.
Krasner: Thank you.
Lee: Thank you very much.
Krasner: Great talking to you, Trymaine. Always great. Thanks.
Lee: Larry Krasner is the district attorney for Philadelphia. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Thursday.