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How prosecutors can help end mass incarceration, with Larry Krasner: podcast & transcript

Chris Hayes and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner talk about mass incarceration and the role prosecutors play in the criminal justice system.

Have you heard about Larry Krasner? He’s a lefty progressive lawyer in Philadelphia that made his name by defending the underdogs, representing activists and suing police officers. Last year, he was elected as Philadelphia’s District Attorney, meaning he now runs the mass incarceration machine he’s spent his decades-long career criticizing. He might be the last person in the world you would expect to be the chief prosecutor for the city of Philadelphia, but if you truly want to see criminal justice reform what better place to start?

People looking at the growth of mass incarceration are increasingly focusing on the key role that prosecutors play, and in just six months Krasner has already radically changed that role. Chris Hayes got a chance to talk to Larry Krasner about “storming the palace doors:"

CHRIS HAYES: For people that are not in Philadelphia, I remember being down in Philadelphia and someone telling me about you. It was like, "Get a load of this. Check out this story. The guy that comes to collect the anarchists when they get arrested outside City Hall and sues the cops, he's gonna run for prosecutor." Not as a joke, but just as a wild story that obviously this individual will not be the next district attorney of Philadelphia, but it's interesting that someone with that background would run. How did you go from there to winning?

LARRY KRASNER: I can't blame people for finding my candidacy hilarious or unlikely. It was both of those things. But it was both of those things if you think that the mainstream Democratic party still has the answers, which they clearly do not. The only answers that they seem to have are how to lose elections while someone as brilliant and magnetic as Barack Obama can still win.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening" with me, your host, Chris Hayes.

This episode of the podcast is really two stories in one. There's a policy story, and it's a policy story about mass incarceration and criminal justice. Then there's a dramatic story. A kind of mythic story. The mythic story is a story about what happens when the revolution seizes the palace. What happens when the rebels take the capital, when they actually storm the halls of power and throw out the old regime, and sit in the throne room, and start making the rules.

The policy story. The policy story is about our country, which is the most incarcerated country in the world, per capita. There is a few small islands, with a very small number of people that are more incarcerated, but basically the most incarcerated country in the entire world. For years, people have been talking about and critiquing this phenomenon we call mass incarceration, the sheer number of people that we put in prison, and then the even larger population of people that are under what we call penal supervision. Those are people that are on probation, or on parole. Huge, huge, huge numbers of people cycling through the criminal justice system.

There's been a debate for a long time for what the cause of the growth of mass incarceration was. In recent years, thanks to some really interesting scholarship, a lot of folks in the criminal justice world have started to focus on one key part of the system. It's not law makers and state capitals passing laws, although they have a huge effect. It's not beat cops making arrests, although they have a huge effect. The fulcrum that has been identified by a lot of the folks who are trying to reduce mass incarceration and remake American justice is the prosecutor.

It turns out, when you look at the data, when you study how it is that we have arrived at the prison population we have, a huge amount of what's driving it are prosecutors. That's because prosecutors have enormous discretion in the American system to not charge people for crimes, or to charge people for crimes. To charge someone for one misdemeanor, or to charge someone for three misdemeanors, or to charge someone for two misdemeanors and a felony, or to charge someone for a Class A felony rather than a Class C felony, to throw the book at people. That discretion is in an office that is often remarkably unaccountable.

DAs in this country, district attorneys, prosecutors, tend to be elected. They tend to be elected in very low turnout elections. They tend to be elected on campaigns that entirely trade on and traffic in the worst kind of fear mongering about the scourge of crime. They tend to run exclusively on platforms that they're gonna be the toughest, they're gonna throw the book the most. Then they create offices that have a culture of doing that.

There's been this theory that's developed, among a whole bunch of critics of the system, that really if you want to reform the criminal justice system in America, one of the most powerful places you can do it is in the prosecutor's office. Here's where we come to the story about the rebels taking the palace. How do you get elected a prosecutor if you're the kind of person who wants to reform what it is the prosecutors do. Because the game is rigged. The deck is stacked. The entire way that for years, that these campaigns have been run is who is gonna be the toughest, who is gonna throw the book at the most people, who is gonna throw the most people in jail, who is gonna save you from the scary figures? How do you win an election if you don't want to do that?

Well, in the last few years, a number of reform prosecutors have run races and won, in some places, in which their agenda and their campaign platform has been explicitly about rejecting a lot of the basic frameworks that have driven prosecutors for years. They've run an agenda of reforming prosecutor's office, of not throwing a book at everyone, at offering people ways of diverting out of the criminal justice system, of not prosecuting every low level drug offense.

Image: Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.Matt Rourke / AP file

The biggest city in America, in which a candidate like that has run for office and won is Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, there's a guy named Larry Krasner who is currently the District Attorney of Philadelphia. Larry Krasner is a fascinating dude because Larry Krasner is the last person in the world you would think would be the prosecutor of one of the biggest cities in America, because Larry Krasner is a lefty lawyer, lifelong defense attorney, who is the kind of guy who shows up on the evening news because he's the lawyer for the anarchists that got arrested protesting. That's who Larry Krasner is.

Now Larry Krasner, who is a true believer in criminal justice reform and deconstructing the machinery of mass incarceration, sits atop the office that produces incarceration in one of the biggest cities in America. He is the rebel who has taken the palace and he now sits there at the desk, making the decisions that the people he spent his life battling against and critiquing used to make, and now he has to be the one to implement his vision of what a more just and humane system looks like while also being the person that prosecutes crimes that takes alleged rapists and alleged murderers, and puts them behind bars that finds people who are accused of violently accosting fellow citizens and decides how much to charge them, how long they need to be kept away from society. He now has that power and that control.

For this reason, for both the policy reason, which is close to my heart. I wrote a book called "A Colony in a Nation," which is about criminal justice and the system that we have created. For this dramatic reason, as I think about the iconic nature of this mythic story that's unfolding in Philadelphia in front of our eyes, I wanted to talk to Larry Krasner for a long time.

Earlier in the summer, we did a town hall on a race in Philadelphia. It was petting to the Starbucks incident and Starbucks day of training, and Larry Krasner was a guest, and I got to talking with him, and invited him on the podcast. Larry Krasner came on the show. The thing that you will see is that he does not talk like a politician. He is not carefully poll tested and watching what he says. He is a true believer in the mission of what he is trying to accomplish. It is absolutely fascinating to hear what he's doing.

What's new in the great city of Philadelphia?

LARRY KRASNER: Oh. All kinds of things. We have our rebellious football team which is thrilling for me. We also have a Super Bowl winning team, which is unheard of for Philly, and that's great.

CHRIS HAYES: How old are you Larry?


CHRIS HAYES: 57. I want to start really early. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? Where did you go to high school?

LARRY KRASNER: Born in St. Louis. I went to public school in St. Louis and then my dad moved out to the east coast. He was a writer, and an author, and journalist, and all that good stuff.


LARRY KRASNER: Yeah. He got a job out on the east coast. We came out here. I went to public schools in the Philly area. I went to college in Chicago. Came back to Philly, worked as a carpenter for a year. Served on a death penalty jury in the area. Then I went to law school in California and came back to Philly to be a public defender.

CHRIS HAYES: Was there a relationship between serving on a death penalty jury and going to law school?

LARRY KRASNER: Well, yes. I had been thinking about it, been thinking about a couple things including, strangely enough, divinity school, and also...

CHRIS HAYES: Divinity school?

LARRY KRASNER: Yeah, and also possibly being a language professor. But I settled on law school A) because my brother said I liked to argue all the time, and B) because the experience of being on a death penalty jury was pretty compelling.

CHRIS HAYES: What about it?

LARRY KRASNER: Well. This was the first death penalty jury in the county, since the U.S. Supreme Court's moratorium. It was a horrifying case involving a rape/murder of an elderly woman by a guy who basically was a handy man. The involvement of the FBI was very extensive because the woman who was killed was the mother of an FBI agent. The evidence in the case was overwhelming, the publicity was very high, it was a crime in which the victim was white and the defendant was black.

There's a lot of racism involved in the jury's deliberations. We were a sequestered jury, so we were living in a hotel because the publicity was so high. It was just a very vivid and compelling experience. What made it even stranger is one of our jurors was so mentally ill, that he was removed from deliberations after they began. That occurred essentially because we were sequestered, and he was untruthful about his need for medication. About a week in, he started to disassociate, and stood up in the deliberations and said that he could not sit in judgment on another person.

The case followed through with a verdict from 11 instead of 12. But even though it was a verdict in the first-degree, it did not go to a death phase because the deal that had been cut, unknown to the jury, was that there would be no death phase in the event that 11 jurors gave the verdict.

CHRIS HAYES: Meaning that the deal was cut, that they go to the lawyers and they say, "We got a problem. We got a guy we got to take out there because he is disassociating." The deal was, rather than declare a mistrial or put in an alternate, that if they reach a guilty verdict of murder in the first with 11, then they won't try for the death penalty.

LARRY KRASNER: Correct. It was about the only thing the defense attorney did well with a difficult case. But unbeknownst to us when we came back with a first-degree verdict, there was no death penalty.

CHRIS HAYES: So wait a second, you Larry Krasner, the great hope of the criminal justice reformers, the nation over, the experiment that is happening in Philadelphia of a new way of conceiving the application for criminal justice, your first professional or adult experience of the law was voting to convict a man on first-degree murder, knowing he might get the death penalty.


CHRIS HAYES: What were your politics like back then when you were sitting in that jury room?

LARRY KRASNER: Very progressive. Very liberal. But my obligation as a juror was to speak the truth. The truth was pretty clear. We had her blood, his fingerprint in her blood, that fingerprint on the mirror of her car, which was outside of the hotel room where he was hiding. We had a whole lot of other stuff too, including the house burned down, on top of her, and connections.

There was no question about guilt. There was no question about the rape. There was no question about the murder itself. In my mind, there was not question that it was first-degree, which is what juries are supposed to do. That wasn't an issue. The death phase of course, is a totally separate proceeding. What would have happened, I guess we can't really say because we never had that deliberation.

CHRIS HAYES: How old were you?


CHRIS HAYES: Geez Louise. That's really young.

LARRY KRASNER: It was. They never would have put me on the jury, except I was working as a carpenter. They didn't ask what else I might be doing. They did not know I had law school applications underway. But that was it.

CHRIS HAYES: Wow. So you're a 23-year-old carpenter. I mean, I guess, can you remember where your head was at as you were doing this? Deliberating and thinking about what this meant?

LARRY KRASNER: Yes. I actually have pretty vivid memories of a lot of it. I have memories of one of the jurors.

Now this is Pennsylvania, which does have a lot of conservative rural folks. But most of us are more like east coasters in our mentality. I remember going in the back and the first thing out of the mouth of the guy with the cowboy boots and the big belt buckle was, "We have to get this boy." Needless to say, he was referring the black defendant.

I remember a number of other comments that I interpreted as being racists. When a few of us disagreed with some of the other jurors, we would have our own races or ethnicities called into question. It was an example, in my mind, of what's good about juries, which is that they're a super brain of people who have specific knowledge and interests coming together. But it also lets in the door of people who have some pretty nasty attitudes and are willing to vent them in bad ways.

CHRIS HAYES: You go to law... Where did you go to law school?

LARRY KRASNER: Stanford Law School.

CHRIS HAYES: Do you come out of law school thinking, "I'm gonna be a lefty crusading lawyer?" What's the game plan there?

LARRY KRASNER: I came out of law school knowing I wanted to do criminal law. I wanted to be a trial lawyer. I interviewed with a lot of prosecutor's offices, and a lot of defender's offices around the country, and had several different opportunities. I really wanted to be a trial lawyer and do criminal justice, but I did not think either side really had all of the truth. I thought both sides had potential. What I found when I interviewed is usually I was a lot more comfortable with the defense attorneys. Not always. But usually, more comfortable with them than the prosecutors.

CHRIS HAYES: There's a funny that happened. My wife is a lawyer and we were together while she was in law school. You went to Stanford. That's obviously an extremely good law school. It's very prestigious. It's the top of the heap. There's this really weird and interesting prestige thing that happens where prosecutor jobs are extremely high prestige in a way that defense attorney jobs are not. Was it like that back then?

LARRY KRASNER: It was. More than anything in law school, the prestige jobs were the ones for big corporate firms that pay tons of money. Which is not really what I wanted to do, and frankly not what I think my skillset is. But yes, in general the view has been that public defender jobs are for floppy hippies. U.S. attorneys jobs, well they're federal, so they must be more important than state court, even though the truth is the vast majority of criminal cases happen in state court. There is that snob-ism and that sort of notion that being a prosecutor is more important or better among many people.

CHRIS HAYES: What is the thing that makes one the high status, high prestige job? Is it just power?

LARRY KRASNER: I think the answer is yes. I also think there are different groups. There are a lot of people who would never consider being a prosecutor and they view the public defender service in Washington D.C. as being the greatest office in the world, and it's a truly great office that attract incredible talent. There are these groups of people who wouldn't consider the other side. But most people who go to law school are fairly conventional, to be honest. In their world, power, and government, and being on the side of the corporation feels like the safe thing, feels like the prosperous thing. They're not wrong about that. I think, in general, among most law students, the prestige lies on the side of government and corporations.

CHRIS HAYES: Tell me a little bit about your legal practice before you decided to run for this position. What kind of lawyering did you do?

LARRY KRASNER: I became a county public defender in Philly which I loved, for three years. I became a federal public defender in Philly, which I did not love, for two years. Then I became a private attorney doing civil rights and criminal defense. I was in criminal court about four or five days a week, for essentially the next 25 years, so 30 years of being in court. Very heavy trial practice, a lot of jury trials, tens of thousands of clients, and frankly I found it fascinating.

I tended to focus on things other people didn't. For example, I did a lot of pro bono representation of activists. This goes all the way back to Act Up in Philly. Partly I think it was just the air that I was breathing in the 1960s, when I was watching the civil rights movement, and I found that fascinating.

But I ended up early on knowing people in Act Up well, at a time when this was truly a national crisis and representing them in various different capacities, but mostly in terms of defending them when they would get arrested and mistreated by the local prosecutor. That became Occupy, it became Black Lives Matter, it became Grannies for Peace, and it became all of these different activist groups for 25 years, whose cases I did, mostly pro bono. Then every now and then, we would do civil rights lawsuits on their behalf, if they were truly mistreated. But I also did about 75 or more lawsuits against Philadelphia Police Department for corruption, for brutality, for violations of civil rights because in truth there was no enforcement against police in Philadelphia. There was really no accountability, and I found that unacceptable.

CHRIS HAYES: You sued the cops?




CHRIS HAYES: You sue the cops. You defended people accused of crimes. I feel like every city has this, the lawyers that show up after the bunch of people get arrested who were protesters. That's who you are in Philadelphia, basically.

LARRY KRANSER: I'm one of them. There are a few of us, but we're a proud and generally broke few.

CHRIS HAYES: I guess what are your values that are motivating you to do that kind of work over the three decades you're doing it?

LARRY KRASNER: Well, first of all I'm oppositional. Going against power is comfortable for me. I'm a big fan of the underdog, as are the Philadelphia Eagles, I want to stress that point.

CHRIS HAYES: The only thing that sounds like a politician about you so far is the praise of the Eagles, which I'm sure is genuine also, but it's the only thing that comes anywhere near close to pandering in what you said thus far.

LARRY KRASNER: I'm willing to pander for my Philadelphia Eagles. I would like to point out...

CHRIS HAYES: Okay, you've it in three references. What would you like to point out?

LARRY KRASNER: I like to point out that Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long, and a few other people have been national leaders on criminal justice reform and...

CHRIS HAYES: They have been.

LARRY KRASNER: ...despite the fact that they were beating everybody else on the football field, so that's pretty good.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, that's true. So, what about your values, like why'd you do this work?

LARRY KRASNER: You know, I was trying to get away from that question. What about my values. I mean, honestly, there is a part of me that really likes to fight for the underdog, and there's a part of me that is not trusting of government, as I think an awful lot of people are not. I just think that there should be equality, there should be fairness, there should be even handedness. Poor people should not be picked on, and people should not be picked on because they are disabled, or because they are gay, or because they are black. That ain't fair. We shouldn't do that, that's not what this country’s about.

CHRIS HAYES: It's rewarding work in a lot of ways but it can be a really, it's hard work, and it's a grind. There's a sense of this sort of bureaucratic grayness to the whole thing as the sort of machinery of mass incarceration just kind of grinds through these massive populations. Did you feel frustrated or unsettled by what you were seeing over this career in these criminal courts?

LARRY KRASNER: I did. I wouldn't want to underestimate the kind of just joy that goes with the picaresque tale that is being in court, and seeing these criminal cases. There's a lot of tragedy and it frankly can be somewhat traumatizing for the police, and certainly for the families of victims, and also somewhat secondarily traumatizing to EMTs and doctors and even lawyers, who have to look at these horrifying photos and contemplate these terrible things.

But, make no mistake, it's really fun. It's very entertaining. I mean, there is a reason why people go home to watch shows about what goes on in criminal court. It's pretty entertaining stuff. I certainly felt that side of this.

On the other hand, what I was seeing at the sort of global level was a slow motion car crash that went on and on for 30 years, and the twin evils of mass incarceration and mass supervision getting worse and worse and worse. As Philadelphia was not getting richer and was not getting safer by national standards.

I was kind of looking at my life's work and realizing that my life's work, while it may have been entertaining and I may have done a lot of justice for individuals, and maybe I helped create a space where free speech and non-violent social change were possible, my life's work wasn't really going to measure up compared to the gray things that had been to whole populations of people that were holding society back and I found that pretty frustrating.

CHRIS HAYES: So, you decide to run to be the chief prosecutor of Philadelphia.

LARRY KRASNER: This is correct.

CHRIS HAYES: Okay. How does that decision happen?

LARRY KRASNER: I was watching another election, I was about 56 years of age, and I knew everybody who was running. It was a pretty unstable situation because the prosecutor, Seth Williams, was not under indictment but he was under federal investigation and that's why so many people were getting in the race.

And as I watched the candidates, they were all ex-prosecutors of one type or another and they really did not represent anything that looked like change. Not even, frankly, mild change. It was a whole lot of chest beating and foot stomping about how we need to be tough on crime and put more people in jail, with almost no specifics. I thought there was another person who might have run, and if so I would not have run, but she didn't. So, eventually, I sort of cast around a little bit wondering if I had a shot, because in fact I had a good law practice and I was enjoying myself in many ways, and I didn't want to do this for nothing.

It looked like I had more support than expected, mostly coming from all these activists who I had represented previously who were, it seemed like they were willing to give back. So, once I realized there was some change that this highly unlikely thing might happen that's when I jumped in.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, I mean I just want to, for people that are not in Philadelphia, like I remember being down in Philadelphia and someone telling me about you. It was like, "Get a load of this, check out this story, like the guy that comes to collect the anarchists when they get arrested outside city hall and sues the cops, he's going to run for prosecutor."

Not as a joke, but just as like a wild story that obviously this individual will not be the next district attorney of Philadelphia, but it's kind of interesting that someone with that background would run. How did you go from there to winning?

LARRY KRASNER: Well, you know, I think the simple answer is that every challenge is an opportunity and the voters were nowhere near on the same page with the political elite, and they were nowhere near on the same page with the criminal justice system as we have it. One of the more amusing things that I saw is we're going around, we're doing these forums. There's like seven different candidates for DA and they're almost all men, they're almost all white. They got glasses. A couple of them got a last name starting with a K, right?

We're in neighborhoods, Philly D and Philly, we're in neighborhoods that are overwhelming black. Every other candidate is trying to pound me because I haven't been a prosecutor, and I am proudly proclaiming, "I haven't been a prosecutor, I haven't been part of the problem." I would see all these older women open their purses and pull out a three by five card and a pen, and they were writing down my name. That was what none of these candidates got.

CHRIS HAYES: "I got to remember which one it is, which."

LARRY KRASNER: Right. "Oh, it's, that's the one who was not the prosecutor."

CHRIS HAYES: That's the guy. Well, I mean, that actually, I mean the math here is interesting too just hearing you spell it out. Right, like if you've got a crowded field of seven people, because you're in a primary. You've got a crowded field of seven people, six of them ex-prosecutors, and there's one guy who's not, that probably helps distinguish you, too.

LARRY KRASNER: It does distinguish you. Of course, being distinguished can take you two different directions, but it does distinguish you. I can't blame people for finding my candidacy hilarious or unlikely, it was both of those things, but it was both of those things if you think that the mainstream Democratic party still has the answers, which they clearly do not. The only answers that they seem to have are how to lose elections while someone as brilliant and magnetic as Barack Obama can still win.


LARRY KRASNER: I think what the voters were clearly looking for was a reason to vote. That's part of the story here is that we saw this massive group of people who were either millennials or they were African Americans, especially older women. Or, in some cases, they were working class whites who had been canvassed in their homes by people who went there. Those are the people who came out in highly unexpected numbers. The increase in the total number of votes in this off-year election cycle was huge. It went from three consecutive cycles of about 120,000 total votes, to 170,000 total votes.


LARRY KRASNER: Some of that's probably Trump, but the consequence was we won the primary in a landslide. Strangely enough in the general election in a city that's overwhelming Democratic and with no outside money in the general, because there was outside money in the primary, the margin got even bigger. There was just this explosion of people. I mean, you were making jokes about anarchists before, right? Well, generally they don't vote, except they voted this time. There were-

CHRIS HAYES: Ah yes, the secret weapon, getting anarchists to vote.

LARRY KRASNER: There you go, there you go. I mean, there is a reason that Bernie Sanders took the Democratic vote among young people in basically every state. The reason is that people are tired of mainstream politicians. They are looking for a reason to vote and if you actually give them a reason they'll do it. Both parties have been busily suppressing the total number of voters for decades, and when an outlier candidate who represents something different comes around, you're going to get people who wouldn't vote to vote.

CHRIS HAYES: I've often thought, in Europe they don't elect prosecutors and they think it's crazy we do. Politicians whipping voters into a frenzy over crime and the fear of crime, and it's something I've seen first hand living through New York when there were 2,300 murders a year. Then, getting voted, you know, rewarded by voters for that fear whipping, that was a real small d Democratic dynamic that drove crime policy in a lot of places. I wonder why, you think, why did that not hold in your case?

LARRY KRASNER: Maybe because it held so many times in the past? You know, when you get to the point where one in three black men is going to experience jail in their lifetime you have come to a moment. It's a moment not just for them, it's a moment for their sisters and their mothers who are watching the consequences of a young person who does something not so bad getting a felony and therefore being effectively unemployable the rest of their life.

Image: Prisoners from Sacramento County await processing after arriving at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, Calif.
Prisoners from Sacramento County await processing after arriving at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, Calif in February 2014.Rich Pedroncelli / AP, file

It's, I mean, I think a lot of it is just that the experience of people who are poor, and the experience of people who are of color and are therefore incarcerated at much, much higher rates in the most incarcerated country in the world, goes one way and the experience of affluent, professional white people, like me to be honest, goes a very different way, because they're getting their information about criminal justice from some sort of elite publication that, like it or not, is still in the fear business and still in the yellow journalistic tradition of blood and guts sell papers.

Well, blood and guts also sell votes, and that's been going on for a very, very long time. But, at some point you're so incarcerated that there's nobody walking down the street. At some point you have no economy whatsoever because the gross national product is all in prisons. We're not that far from that point, we really aren't, and that's part of the reason that we see the right in many ways agreeing with the left when it comes to the necessity of ending mass incarceration and mass supervision.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, certain parts of the right, I wouldn't get too...

LARRY KRASNER: Oh, I agree, that's right.

CHRIS HAYES: But, you touched a little on the racial dynamics here, I mean one of the things that ... there's this great book by James Foreman that won the Pulitzer actually, called "Locking Up Our Own," which is about sort of the politics of crime in urban centers. Particularly in the 1980s and '90s and the rise of mass incarceration particularly among black voters, and the complicated story there was about that. I wonder how you... because the prosecutor that came before you, Seth Williams, was African American. You're a white guy sort of running against the system in a city with a very large population of people who are not white. What were those dynamics like?

LARRY KRASNER: Well, you know, it's kind of a fascinating thing to experience, because I guess you get sort of jaded as someone who's an outsider to politics in assuming that all black people are going to vote for a black person and all white people will vote for a white person. Basically, the people who voted for me were either much younger than me, women, or of color, or all three. I mean, that's what it was. The ones I could never reach look like me.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, right.

LARRY KRASNER: So, in their eyes it wasn't identity politics and you're absolutely right. What Foreman's writing about is true, it is not the case that just because you elect a black person, that person will necessarily be progressive. This has a lot more to do I think with individual values and individual character. I'm not saying that to toot my own horn, I'm just saying that stereotypes are bad. They're bad when we apply them to whole categories of people and say they're dangerous and they belong in jail. They're bad when we apply them to whole categories of people and say they're poor because they're lazy.

But, it's also bad when you say, well, every white politician is going to screw people who are of color. It's just not true. It's also not true to say every police officer is bad, or every police officer loves illegal stop and frisk. There's a ton of police officers who happen to African American, and women, and young. So, this sort of monolithic stereotypical approach to evaluating these things turns out to be incorrect. It seems to be to much more about the life experience and the values and the connection than it is about anything else.

CHRIS HAYES: You win the primary, which everyone sort of assumes like whoever wins the primary is going to win the general, it's Philadelphia. But then, if I'm not mistaken, like the police union just flips out when you win the primary, right?

LARRY KRASNER: They flipped out before I won the primary, but yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, I mean, well, they flipped out before you win the primary, but what was the police unions stance on the candidacy of Larry Krasner?

LARRY KRASNER: Well, in the words of the president of the police union when he heard that I announced, he said it was, "Hilarious." Now, there's a reason he said that.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, I had a sort of a similar response, I really can't fault him for that.

LARRY KRASNER: Well, I'm not saying he's wrong, but at any rate there's a reason for that, which is that unlike New York, Philadelphia has a monolithic police union that is the bargaining agent. It is dominated by its white membership, and frankly to some extent by its retired membership. The guy who's in charge of it happens to be someone I was deposing 20 years ago in a police corruption law suit, because he was awful close to a bunch of narcotics cops who, I won't go on and on, but they invented an informant and they stole a whole lot of stuff and they framed a lot of people. So, I mean, it is what it is.

CHRIS HAYES: Oh, so he wasn't enthusiastic about your candidacy?

LARRY KRASNER: I know that's hard to believe. I know that's hard to believe, but I mean let's be honest, the job of a union head to some extent is to avoid accountability on the part of its members. This is a union head who takes that to an extreme. I think he had a personal affinity frankly for people who didn't want to be accountable, and that's kind of how it's operated.

Philly has a long tradition going back to a police officer who became the police chief who became the mayor, named Frank Rizzo, of police chiefs yelling into the ear of the mayor of the sound coming out of the mayor’s mouth. They have been a political stronghold in Philly even more so than in other cities. A lot of that has to do with what you were talking about, is that district attorneys use fear not just to become the district attorney, but they use it to become U.S. senators and they use it to become governor. And, in a state like Pennsylvania where running state wide means you want the fraternal order of police state wide to support you.

That means if you're in Philly it's crucial that you do whatever the FOP wants, and that's how things have worked in Philly for my whole career. Until now, because frankly I don't want to run for anything else. I'm pretty happy being the DA in Philadelphia county and I am much more concerned about even handedness and lifting up the good police officers than I am protecting the bad ones.

CHRIS HAYES: So, here you've got like the critic of the system, someone who has never been a prosecutor, lifelong defense attorney, made his bones suing cops. Now you, Larry Krasner, are going to run the machinery of mass incarceration in Philadelphia. What has that experience been like? I mean, the institutional gravity of a place that is down to every last bureaucratic detail been working one direction for a very long time, and you're going to come in at the top and try to reverse it.

LARRY KRASNER: I mean, for me it's been fascinating and wonderful. We have approached this as you might approach life if you are facing cancer. There is a fierce urgency of now, and we have to seize it. I genuinely view this as a movement and you have to act like a movement if you're a movement. That means you need to come in and you need to change things, and you need to do so quickly. We do not have time to move the way government moves, which is slowly and ineffectively and in compromised ways.

So, we did what was necessary, which is that we came in, we identified a very small portion of the personnel who did not share the mission and never would, and we asked them to resign and they did. It was only about five percent, but they went out the door. We have been steadily bringing in new prosecutors who have a different moral compass, frankly, and who are talented and hard working and who share the vision. That is, to me, it is that swap of personnel. It is the years we're going to dedicate to recruiting the right kind of people that really will be our legacy.

CHRIS HAYES: But, I don't buy how frictionless you just made that sound.

LARRY KRASNER: Oh, there was friction, make no mistake. I mean, so what —

CHRIS HAYES: Well, that's what I want to hear about. I mean, it's just like, "Well, we came in and it was, they left, and you know, now it's…

LARRY KRASNER: Well, look, I mean the friction comes at many levels. First of all, when the pirates take over the ship some people got to go over the side or the ship will be sailed in the wrong direction. So, we are the pirates, we did take over the ship, and some people went over the side and now we're headed the right direction. Needless to say, when you start that process —

CHRIS HAYES: I'm sure the police union loves that.

LARRY KRASNER: Well, you know, I'll tell you, the African American Police Officers Association, which is about 30 percent or so of the police department, endorsed me in the general election. Once again, no, the head of the police union did not, but there are many police officers of good will who are actually very much on board with getting their corrupt colleagues out of the way so that they can get promoted and they can get advanced and they can get the overtime. So, I wouldn't want to speak of the monolithically either.

But, as you talk about the friction, it came from many sources. It's come certainly internally from people who even though we've carefully vetted and got rid of some people, people who were still dug in and were not going to change. So, they have had to be moved around. In many cases they have departed voluntarily because we have a pretty robust hiring environment in Philly for lawyers. We have been filling more and more positions, which has really been kind of great.

We got a lot of friction for our newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, which should know better because 25 years ago is was a great investigative journalistic paper, but you know, as with much of mainstream traditional journalism, the paper got thinner and thinner. The ownership got richer and richer. It has ideologically gone a different direction, so we've been getting clobbered by the local paper for months. It's now starting to turn around, it's now starting to be a little but more sympathetic, but there was that friction as well.

I mean, look, I was a criminal defense lawyer for 30 years. You go into the court room and for the most part the system hates you, and they treat you that way. So, I was kind of used to that, that was nothing new for me. To go into the DA's office and have some people there not like you right away is expected.

I don't really even expected that the prosecutors who work there necessarily agree with me, that’s not the point. I am a big believer in freedom of thought and speech. The only thing I care about is they carry out the mission. That means when we have policies, and we came in and pretty quickly put down a bunch of policies, they've got to follow them. If they're unwilling to follow them or they're going to deliberately undermine us in court, then they too have to go, and we have to continue to replace them with people who are willing to carry out the mission.

CHRIS HAYES: I'm hearing personnel is policy from you in some ways.

LARRY KRASNER: Personnel is policy because culture eats policy all day long. If you talk to any of the progressive DA's who've gotten in there, you can pass whatever policy you want, and when your mid-level supervisor crunches it up and puts it in the trash can and it's not being carried out in the courtroom, they've all got a little grin on their face and you don't have any change.

So, it is a process, and it's not easy to take an office that for decades has hired its own and fired people who felt differently, it's a real process to take those people and redirect them. But, there's an awful lot of them who with the proper education, which they have not been given, with the facts, which they have not been fed, are willing to go a different direction. That's part of the challenge is to bring along the many, many good people there while you get rid of the ones who frankly just can't be changed.

CHRIS HAYES: The reason I'm so interested in this is because I've had in some weird way kind of a similar... I mean, it's very different, and the stakes are very different, I didn't have human lives on my hands. But, you know, I sort of was like a journalist who came up as a critic of quote, "The mainstream media." Lots of things about the conventions and affects of mainstream media, particularly cable news, the conventions of which can be just stultifying and terrible.

Then, had to host a cable news show, and you just recognize the sort of the gravity of institutional inertia and how things operate in a new way that you didn't before. Like, are there things that you were wrong about? Are there things that you, Larry Krasner, district attorney, want to go back in time and tell Larry Krasner cop suer?

LARRY KRASNER: I think I'm probably wrong a lot, but at this point I'm sitting here only less than six months in, less than 10 percent of a four year term in, and, I guess if I were to go back, I would say maybe I did not understand, and I understand better now, how difficult it is to deal with the family of a victim. Or to deal directly with a victim, especially when you have a system that really only has one thing to offer them, which is a sentence, and a sentence is not that meaningful. It's not treatment for trauma, it's not an apology that is meaningful and sincere. It is not a full explanation of why this occurred. It is not a full explanation of whether or not this could occur again to that same victim or family, or maybe just somebody else, you know?

It's a very difficult place to be to have so much trauma. Having been visited on people who, in one way or another, you have to help. And having so few tools to deal with it. I mean, I had a conversation with Kim Ogg who's the relatively progressive DA in Houston, who said to me, she cries all the time now, and she never used to cry. Well, it's tough. That, I think, is something that maybe defense attorneys don't understand, of what police officers go through, and EMTs go through, and to some extent, DAs go through when they try to address theses heartbreaking situations.

CHRIS HAYES: It's interesting you say that, because when I have done a lot, I've talked to a lot of police officers in the course of my reporting, and there's something that one police officer said to me once about, "every interaction you're having, is with someone having their worst day." You know, human behavior, right, runs a spectrum from the most sublime, and ecstatic, and generous, to the most just vile and horrible and, you know, most of your interactions with a few human beings are happening at one end of that spectrum. It starts to really torque your world view, at a certain point, or the way you think about people.

LARRY KRASNER: I think that's true. And needless to say, as a defense attorney who tried a lot of homicides, I certainly had seen enough horrifying photographs and heard enough awful facts, and seen a lot of traumatized witnesses talking about something terrible that they had witnessed, but it is a little bit different when you are dealing directly and privately with the family who's lost their 13 year old girl to a drive-by shooting, in which she had no involvement. That's just a very, very hard thing for them to face, and it's a hard thing for you to engage.

CHRIS HAYES: You mentioned other progressive DAs. This is a kind of movement that's happened in this country. I think some of the... A lot of working criminal justice reform, is really starting to focus, I would say in the last, I feel like in the last four or five years, in how instrumental role, prosecutors and prosecutors' offices play in it. There's a guy at Fordham, a really great scholar named John Fath, who talks a lot about the role the prosecutors have just in a kind of numerical sense, about even when you don't change the underlying laws and statutes, prosecutors can charge more crimes, and ask for more time, and they can really drive mass incarceration almost single handedly, independent of what legislatures, or governors are doing. So, there's been this response to try to elect people like yourself in Philadelphia and other places. How have you approached it from a policy perspective of trying to kind of reduce mass incarceration from your perch?

LARRY KRASNER: I think John Fath is right. The essence of the reason I really don't want any other job in government is that you have this tremendous discretion. I don't have to get other people to agree with me to look at a case, and say, "no, I'm not gonna charge that person." Or, "No, I'm gonna pursue the death penalty." That power is in the office, and it's recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court as being in the bones of that office. So, that's really important, to be able to actually do things without having to get buy in, without having to log roll. What policies have we brought about? It's basically the ability to say no, or it's the ability to stay your hand, which is real power. That is what Fath is talking about. So, for example, we're trying to get at the massive incarceration and mass supervision, and by the way, Pennsylvania's worst in the National average, and the country's the worst in the world. Philadelphia, until recently, was the most incarcerated of the 10 largest cities, and the poorest.


Image: Lee Correctional Institution
Razor wire protects a perimeter of the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina.Sean Rayford / AP file

LARRY KRASNER: So, these are real issues in Philly. Here's an example, we have more juvenile lifer re-sentencings because the U.S. Supreme Court determined that it was unconstitutional to give a life sentence to a juvenile who committed a murder.

So, we have more of those re-sentencings than any state in the United States, which means any country in the world. It's that extreme. During this administration, we're gonna go through about 150 of them, and that means we sit around a table, and determine whether the sentence we should recommend for the re-sentencing is 50 years, or it's time served at 20 years. We're doing this while looking at what the prior administration was willing to recommend before they left. Sometimes the numbers we're recommending are 10 years less. Sometimes they're the same, or even more. But, often they're gonna be 10 years less, or 15 years less.

Well, think about that for a minute. You're looking at 10 years times what, $42,000, or maybe more. Or 15 years times $42,000, you're dealing with a half a million dollars, $600,000. And you're dealing with that in a city that has public schools that are starved for funding, and you're making a decision about where society's resources are gonna go, and I don't have to get that past anybody in the state legislature. That is a decision that, ultimately, is up to me.

When we look at all of these juvenile lifers who've been released, in Pennsylvania, as a consequence of these re-sentencings, out of all of them, we have not one who has committed a serious violent crime. To the best of my knowledge, only one who's committed any crime. We're dealing with recidivism at a rate that is essentially equal, to a random selection of the population. They are no more dangerous. They're supposedly monsters who had to spend their entire lives in jail, but they're no more dangerous than the average person walking down the street.

That is, I think, an example, of the kind of power that we're talking about. But, there's also the power to say, "No, I'm not going to pursue the death penalty." And there's also the power to do a couple other things we did.

One of which, was after we looked at the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines, and we realized how excessive and inappropriate they were, we made a decision on a range of offenses that are not sex offenses, and not violent offenses, we made a decision that our offers to resolve those cases should be below the bottom end of the sentencing guidelines. Why? Because those are the sentencing guidelines that gave us a 700 percent increase in jail population, while the rest of the country was already drunk on 500 percent. They're just too high. It's that simple.

But because of the way the laws are written, and because of the discretion we have, we can recommend to the court, a sentence that is below all of that. We can also divert more cases, take them out of the prosecution process, hold people accountable, while not giving them a criminal record that will disable them from having economic success, from becoming economic providers for families, et cetera.

We also did something with cash bail that I think is really something that we're kind of proud of. Having looked at the example of D.C., where for 30 years they've had very successful bail system that never included money, we realized that Pennsylvania's legislature wouldn't give us a law, like they had in D.C., that says, "Judges cannot use money." But, what we could do, is we, as an office, could make recommendations to judges in many different types offenses that were not sex offenses, and not violent offenses, and not felony possession of a weapon, we can make a recommendation, ordinarily, that we don't want any money.

The way we did this, is we looked at 26 different crimes, where ordinarily, the judges were given between $0 and $1,000 bail to get out of jail. Which means, the middle class people always got out, the rich people always got out, and the people who were completely broke, and could not find $250, stayed in jail, for months, at a price to the taxpayer of $135 a day, simply because they were broke.


LARRY KRASNER: So, we took those 26 crimes and we created a presumption that we will never ask for cash. That doesn't mean... Look, if Charles Manson shows up in Philly, and commits a minor offense, and we know he's Charles Manson, we're going for a bunch of cash bail. We want to keep him jail, right? But, it just means that the default position is we're not gonna ask for it. The consequence of this was, between the sentencing, policy, and the cash bail policy, that in the first 45 days, after we put these policies into effect, we saw reductions in the county jail population of about 13 people per day, where the reductions before the policy went into effect were about six people per day. You know, there was a doubling of the rate of reduction of people in our over-crowded county prisons as a consequence of these two policies, and that happened 45 days into the administration. It was an immediate effect. And we are at the point now, where Philadelphia is ready to close one of it's four county jails because there aren't any people in that jail.



CHRIS HAYES: And that's because of Larry Krasner?

LARRY KRASNER: No, that is not because of me. It's because —

CHRIS HAYES: Are they gonna... They should knock it down and call it the Larry Krasner Parking Lot.

LARRY KRASNER: You know, that would be quite an honor. I've always wanted a parking lot named after me, but no... There's a reason the reduction was at six before we did that.


LARRY KRASNER: There is a tendency and a trend towards de-carceration. Some of it has to do with a particular piece of Federal Law. It was a decision called a lien by the U.S. Supreme Court. A lot of it has to do with the reality that California's going broke keeping people in jail, and even though they were at the vanguard of giving people three strikes, life sentences, and things of that sort, once they ran into the reality of what that means a decade or two later, they decided it was time to let them back out. It is not a sustainable situation to wait until everybody who used to be walking down the street is in jail. That is also not a good outcome, in any sense. So, people are getting increasing fed up with it.

But, you know, we can't wait 30 years to get this right. There is, in fact, what King talked about. There is a fierce urgency of now, that we have to do these things right now. We can't slow down, we have to take the momentum like any good movement does, and we have to move forward.

CHRIS HAYES: Is there... I wonder how much the fact that crime has been declining generally for a while, creates the conditions in which you can do this. And if there was a 20 percent spike in crime in Philly next year, you would be absolutely toast.

LARRY KRASNER: I think that your point is well taken, that since 1992, nationally, there has been a, frankly, unexplained decline in crime. There are many different theories, by the way, yes, I have —

CHRIS HAYES: It's the greatest sociological mystery of our time. It's like a miracle. It was 2,300 people got murdered in New York City when I first started going down to high, my junior high school in 1992, and there was 350 or something last year. Nothing else around any where declines by 80 percent, or whatever the heck that is.

LARRY KRASNER: It is mysterious, and I think it is a fair statement, if you read John Fath, which I'm sure you have, because you're talking about him, but I think it's a fair statement that there was a brief period of time, during the crack epidemic, when an increased incarceration had a benefit. That was very short lived, and what we have done since then, is the political magnification in increase in incarceration, while there was a slow and steady decrease in crime since 1992. It is unexplained, you actually talked about that, in your book, which I read. Very nice book, by the way.

CHRIS HAYES: Thank you.

LARRY KRASNER: But, it's real. You can get a bunch of criminologists in a room and have them talk to each other, and there is no consensus on it, but we do know that there's been a decrease in crime. Do, I think that if there was a sudden increase in homicide for example, in Philly, that would be the end of it? Well, the interesting thing is there was. And it happened last year, it happened at the end of 30 years of draconian conservative prosecutors running the show. It is in a moderate decline this year, as we are letting more and more people out of jail.

But, that narrative that you just applied, which is if there is a crime spike, then the progressives are out, doesn't seem to apply to conservatives. Somehow, all that they do is respond to a crime spike by saying what they've always said, which is, "We're gonna be tough on crime." And they're okay.

CHRIS HAYES: Oh, yeah. I mean, the police are amazing about this. I've watched this happen in New York where it's like, if crime is up, you need more police, and if crime is down, it's because the number of police you have are working and you better not cut back on police. It's always a one way ratchet.

LARRY KRASNER: It's a good system, I gotta figure out the other ratchet.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, it's not even the numbers in aggregate. I watched this happen with Bill de Blasio here where two police officers were brutally murdered by this maniac, who I'm sure you remember, said he was gonna put wings on a pig, and first he shoots his ex, and then he comes up to New York, and he essentially assassinates two officers, who are sitting in a car in Brooklyn. Just an absolutely horrifying crime. Just gut punch for the city, and that was when the cops turned their back on de Blasio when he went to the funeral. Man, I will tell you, it spooked him, it changed the way he behaved, it changed the way he talked. It really, I think, a turning point in some ways, for better or for worse, but a turning point in how the mayor dealt with the cops, how he talked about crime. In some ways, it's like the trauma and the horror always looms over anyone who's doing any job in the world of crime prevention.

LARRY KRASNER: That's right. I think that does happen. A lot of the way these issues are addressed really does flow out of the history of yellow journalism. And the reality that crimes sell papers.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, right.

LARRY KRASNER: Therefore, if crime goes up X, then the coverage of crime will go up seven X, because that will sell papers. It's become this comic book narrative about how something bad happened, who can we blame? Let's blame the judge who should have had a crystal ball that he or she never had, let's blame the prosecutor, who should have had this person under the jail for doing a retail theft before this person went out and did a homicide. It's a false narrative.

It's something that has to be taken on directly. What we are doing is risk management. And we are, in many ways, no different than medicine. Doctors are not going to cure mortality, they can only improve conditions of life, that's the best they can do. We are not gonna end crime. The issue is, do we manage it well? That's the standard by which it has to be judged. Not the anecdotal, horrifying, individual case that is not emblematic of what's really going on generally, and is simply a horrifying thing to read in the morning.

CHRIS HAYES: Is the power of the singular case, which is really a central aspect of the narrative upon which mass incarceration is built. I say this as someone who grew up every day and would go to the bus stop with the two tabloids of New York City right there in the newspaper boxes, and often grisly crimes. Is that a truth about human nature, or is that a truth about the yellow journalism, as you call it? Is it... What is it in your mind?

LARRY KRASNER: I mean, there is a fundamental truth that, and Ronald Reagan knew this, and frankly, you can read this in the Bible, that when you're trying to explain a concept, you're much better telling a little story about person. It's in our children's stories. People identify with people. So, a story about an individual is much more palatable, even though it may ultimately be misleading or false, than looking at statistics, which are just not something we relate to terribly well.

So, that is a fundamental problem. And it's also part of the problem in politics, because if what you're gonna do is you're gonna elect Barack Obama because he is Jesus Christ and all the Saints, and then you're gonna figure out that he's not perfect, so he's the Devil, then we're locked into the same narrative. If it's all gonna be about the history of kings and queens, and it's gonna be about individual instead of being a broader view of what's happening generally in society, or maybe to the many subjects of the king and queen, then you're going to, I think, repeatedly have failures of movements because they're not viewed as movements, they're viewed as an individual who's attacked and taken down.

CHRIS HAYES: You keep calling it a movement, I think it is. Where is this movement at this moment that you talked to? The sort of, criminal justice reform movement in the country.

LARRY KRASNER: Nationally, I think it's doing very well. I mean, for example, I'm in D.C. right now on this microphone, and the reason I'm here is there's a gathering of a bunch of progressive prosecutors. Among them. George Gascón from San Francisco, Kim Fox from Chicago, Eric Gonzalez from Brooklyn, and about 20 others, and we are all getting together to look at issues around juvenile justice, and talk about best practices, and hear from expert for about two or three days. We view ourselves as being a movement.

But locally, in Philadelphia, it is also a movement, a different kind. It's a much more grass roots, I would say activist organized movement, that not only has shown its political chops, but is currently showing its chops in terms of being able to answer the mainstream press, and talk about the broader issues, and express the views of people in the poorest of the 10 largest cities, about what they actually want out of the criminal justice system, and where they want their resources to be put.

When I say that, I truly view this as being a movement. I really mean that. I think that this is something that is coming from the people, which is as it should be. It's going to be very powerful where those kinds of movements can be organized, and no, it's not gonna be everywhere. But it's gonna be very powerful, and it's gonna be like every other movement. This struggle is gonna go on for many years, maybe a decade, maybe two. Then, everybody's gonna look around at a much more liberated, much more progressive criminal justice system, and they're gonna say, "Well, of course, this is the way it always should have been, and I don't know why it wasn't. Isn't that a strange blip that happened between the early 1980s and the late 2010s?"

CHRIS HAYES: I hope you're right Larry Krasner. You got me feeling hopeful. Maybe someone will point to the Larry Krasner Parking Lot and say...

LARRY KRASNER: Say, "Here's the thing, it's a movement, so it's gonna have to be a movement parking lot."

CHRIS HAYES: It's a movement parking lot. There you go.

Larry Krasner is the District Attorney of Philadelphia. Six months into that job, as you hear, and things are already changing rapidly. It's was a really, really fascinating conversation, Larry, thanks so much.

LARRY KRASNER: Thank you for having me, it was a pleasure.

LARRY KRASNER: "Why Is This Happening" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News Think, produced by the All In Team, music, by Eddie Cooper.

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