Update: May 17
Larry Krasner won the Democratic nomination to Philadelphia’s DA office with 38 percent of the votes. He will face Republican candidate Beth Grossman in the general election next fall, but in a deeply Democratic city, the odds are in his favor.
Philadelphians are heading to the polls today to pick a Democratic candidate for the city’s top prosecutor job. Turnout will almost certainly be low, but many in the city and beyond are looking at this election as a referendum on the criminal justice system at large, and a vote that could send ripple effects across the country and bring greater scrutiny on prosecutors, the system’s most powerful and unchecked actors.
As The Intercept reported yesterday, the field is crowded, and the city’s justice problems run deep: Philadelphia jails more people than any other city in the Northeast, and broken practices like stop-and-frisk, cash bail, and asset forfeiture are rampant and disproportionately impact the city’s poor and black citizens.
But an unconventional candidate has shaken up this race: a criminal defense and civil rights attorney who has never prosecuted a case but instead spent his career defending poor people and protesters and suing the police. The Intercept met with Larry Krasner ahead of the primary to discuss his opposition to the death penalty, what “smart on crime” really means, and how prosecutors nationwide can stand up to the Trump administration.
Alice Speri: You have been a defense attorney your entire career. Why do you want to become a prosecutor now?
Larry Krasner: I’m running now because I think the time is right. People are understanding something that I have understood for a while, just because I am in criminal courts four, five days a week and I have been seeing it for 30 years. What they’re seeing is that the criminal justice system systemically picks on poor people, and those people, at least in Philadelphia, are overwhelmingly black and brown people.
The situation has gotten urgent. When you have more people in jail than any country in the world, that’s a problem. When you have more people of color in jail than South Africa had during apartheid, that’s a problem. When you have the most incarcerated city of the 10 largest cities in the United States, that’s a problem. When you have more people doing life sentences whose homicides were committed as juveniles than any state in the country and any country in the world, that’s a problem. We have gotten to the point where it should be pretty obvious something has to change, right?
When I looked at the candidates who were in the field, I was looking at people I knew, and it was business as usual. If there had been a truly progressive candidate in there, I would not have run. At this point, it just seemed necessary, to be honest.
AS: You have made resisting the Trump administration a cornerstone of your campaign. How can DAs do that?
LK: The good news is that the feds don’t have enough law enforcement officers. They have jurisdiction over certain things like drugs and guns, but they still need to have boots on the ground. If they’re going to try to go back to a war on drugs that has failed so miserably, they’ll have a hard time doing it in places where local prosecutors aren’t willing to do it for them. I am not willing to help ICE with mass deportations. I am not willing to help the DEA or the FBI return to the mentality of the war on drugs. Of course I would engage in what I view to be appropriate drug enforcement, but that doesn’t look like the war on drugs. If local district attorneys simply stand up and say, “You go ahead, we’re not going to be a part of your plan. We’re not funded for it, we’re not required to do it,” he will have great difficulty carrying out almost all of what he’s trying to do.
AS: You said you want to transform the culture of the DA’s office. How do you do that when prosecutors wield enormous power and have long acted without oversight or accountability, often driven by a convict-at-all-costs mentality?
LK: People are doing things in that office pretty much because that’s how they’ve always done it. In fact, one of the more laughable things about being in court all the time is how you see some good defense attorney or public defender making a legal argument and the response coming from the DA is, “But judge, that’s how we always do it.” Which needless to say is not a legal response. That’s just the systemic familiarity response.
If you have a truly progressive DA, there’s going to be a certain portion of the DA’s office who can’t stand the idea of change. They’re going to leave. There are other people who are going to be made to leave because you cannot bring about real change and leave people in place who are going to fight change every step of the way. The ones who will leave will tend to be my generation, people who started in this business 30 years ago, which means they’ll also tend to be white and male. That results in more openings, opportunities for greater diversity, and if we are to judge by what’s happened in other jurisdictions, the office will become a tremendous magnet for new talent, because there are a ton of people who are either coming out of law school or who are mid-career who would love to work in a truly progressive DA’s office but haven’t been able to find any.
That means you have really committed, dedicated, talented people who are coming into an organization that already contains the dissent, meaning people who have been there for years but might have been frustrated for years. I know some of these folks because some of them would call me and tell me what they knew about corrupt cops, but couldn’t do anything about it from the inside. Those people need to stay, and in supervisor positions, because they represent the kind of change that should come. And there are a lot of just malleable, mostly younger attorneys who did what they were told, and always wanted to do the right thing, and with proper training will do the right thing. I think real cultural change is possible.
AS: Prosecutorial misconduct is a major problem in many DA offices, and it’s hardly ever confronted.
LK: Prosecutors who engage in misconduct or can be shown to have done it in the past are not going to be working for me. Let’s remember something. DAs go into court every day and there are certain mantras they repeat. One of those mantras is, “Well, you should have thought of that before you did what you did.” Another one is, “You need to take responsibility for your actions.” Right? Well, it goes for them too.
AS: You have been described as the “Black Lives Matter candidate,” and to many in law enforcement, that means the anti-police one. You have sued the Philadelphia PD at least 75 times. How will you work with the police?
LK: People have a tendency to think of all police as being the same. But they’re not, and in cities as diverse as Philadelphia, a very significant portion of the “Blue Lives,” as the Fraternal Order of Police likes to say, are in fact black lives. If you talk to black officers in Philadelphia about things like stop-and-frisk, their attitude is much more negative. They get stopped and frisked themselves. They watch their teenage sons go out to do nothing wrong and come back with bloody knees, humiliated and angry. And they also have to participate in it, and they realize every confrontation you have with kids who have done nothing wrong is alienating those kids, reminding them that they’re poor, and making them dislike police and not want to give information to police. The head of the FOP in Philadelphia is this reactionary white throwback kind of guy who endorsed Donald Trump — to the outrage of much of the rank and file in Philadelphia, to the outrage of women officers, and there are many, to the outrage of black officers, and there are many, and to the outrage of white officers of good will.
AS: How will you keep police accountable while working with them? Do you believe in the need for a special prosecutor to oversee police abuse cases?
LK: I have been prosecuting police for a very long time. It is not a particularly popular thing to do, it’s one of the most difficult areas of law there is, because juries like to believe in police and are inclined to try to believe in police as much as they possibly can. As district attorney, I would have a unit headed by a supervisor whose duties are exclusively investigation and prosecution, where appropriate, of police, and investigation and prosecution, where appropriate, of public officials. I don’t think whoever is heading that unit should simultaneously be using police as witnesses in drug cases or in robbery cases or in homicide cases. It just seems to me that that gets too conflicted. But at the same time, I’m not a fan of the idea that some progressives have that I should just send those cases to the state attorney general.
AS: “Smart on crime” seems to be the new catchphrase among moderates in law enforcement, including in this DA race. The idea is to target the small percentage of offenders who commit violent crimes. In fact, violent offenders are usually excluded from much of the debate around criminal justice reform. Can the justice system be fairer for them too?
LK: For political reasons, the rhetoric around this has become violent versus nonviolent, and nobody really talks about what violent means. Does violent mean Charles Manson? Or does it mean two workers who get in a fistfight in a bar, one of them has a black eye and the other one is charged with simple assault? That’s violent, but it ain’t Charles Manson. The response to those two things should be careful and thoughtful and three-dimensional. It should not be simply to lump them all together.
There’s this idea that there are just two categories of people, the violent ones and the nonviolent ones, and all the nonviolent ones are deserving of compassion and all the violent ones are monolithically evil. Let me tell you something that’s nonviolent that I think is pretty damn intrusive and awful: economically preying on vulnerable victims by identity theft, by taking advantage of elderly people in contracting, by the epidemic we have in Philadelphia of stealing houses by manufacturing phony deeds — I think that those things hurt a little bit more than a black eye in many ways, and yet we think in binary terms, violent, nonviolent. We need to be much more victim-centered and survivor-centered when we think of these crimes, and not equate a bar fight with mass murder, or something that is incredibly intrusive, like identity theft, with other nonviolent offenses that really don’t affect anyone, like the possession of marijuana.
AS: You oppose the death penalty and said that you will never pursue it. Pennsylvania has only executed three people since 1976 (three individuals that waived their appeals and asked for the executions to be carried out). Why do people still believe that you can’t win an election if you oppose the death penalty?
LK: I was consistently told that I needed to decide whether I wanted to win this election or be the unicorn. And that if I want to be the unicorn, then I could raise my fist and say no death penalty, but if I want to win, I shouldn’t say that. I said it anyway, just because that’s what I believed for 30 years and it just didn’t make any sense to me to start lying now. It’s controversial, I suppose, but it’s also really dumb that it’s controversial.
AS: You have represented generations of protesters. Are things getting worse for the right of expression and dissent?
LK: There is definitely a sense among the right, and an attitude that has been cultivated by Trump during his campaign rallies, that free speech will not be tolerated, that it’s OK to punch people who disagree with you, it’s OK to throw people out at rallies if they disagree with you, it’s OK to brag about beating them to the point where they have to be taken out on stretchers. We have seen police behavior, from the moment of Trump’s inauguration, that is less tolerant of free speech than what we saw before. I think it’s going to be up to a lot of attorneys and locally elected prosecutors to hold the line and make sure we preserve people’s civil rights. But let’s remember something: There has also been more protest happening. In Philadelphia, when they called for a Women’s March and they thought there were going to be X number of people, it’s been three times that. When people went down to the airport because of the Muslim ban and they thought there were going to be X number of people, it’s been three, four, five times that. We’re seeing a very grassroots response, and at the same time, we’re seeing a wannabe dictator who is trying to cut off any expression he doesn’t like. Now he’s essentially trying to create a space where protest is not permitted. But he’ll lose. People like him always do.
AS: You have been called the Bernie Sanders of the Philadelphia DA race and a lot of Sanders supporters have campaigned hard for your election.
LK: I do feel like the Bernie in this race. Ain’t nobody perfect but neither am I, so I think it’s great. They stood for change from the outside. When we look back, we have to admit that the old Vermont Jewish socialist septuagenarian would have won. Because he did represent an outside perspective that got channeled in the worst way towards Donald Trump.
AS: If you do become the DA, will you miss being “on the other side” in court?
LK: No, because I don’t think I’ll be on the other side. I always did this because I think trials should always be fair, and innocent people should not be convicted, and individuals’ civil rights should be preserved, and results should be accurate, and guilty people should get the proper outcome. I don’t see a big distinction between doing that as a prosecutor and doing it as a defense attorney. When I came out of law school I had offers from prosecutors’ offices and I had offers from public defenders’ offices. Philadelphia was one of those places where there was only one side to be on, because the culture in the DA’s office was drunk on the death penalty and in love with using poor people to get ahead as a politician. It was gross. It’s been gross for 30 years, so in Philly there was only one choice. But hopefully we can change that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.