As a civil rights attorney in private practice, Larry Krasner sued the Philadelphia Police Department roughly 75 times. Not exactly the kind of guy you would expect to run for district attorney of Philadelphia. Or to win.
But that’s exactly what happened in 2017. Not even Krasner gave himself good odds of victory when he first entered the race.
“It was a laughable shot,” he tells Deadline, “but somehow it worked.”
Krasner swept into office as part of a wave of progressive D.A.s elected in cities around the country, an iconoclastic group dedicated to taking on a system many critics see as systemically racist and unfair.
“This administration is going to have a progressive and frankly activist approach to criminal justice reform,” Krasner articulated early in his tenure, promising to “substantially” alter charging and sentencing practices and cash bail policies that have contributed to mass incarceration. “You’re not going to see slow, incremental change.”
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That statement is captured in episode 1 of the PBS Independent Lens docuseries Philly D.A., which is contending for Emmy nominations in multiple categories, including Outstanding Documentary or Non-Fiction Series. The eight-part program, created by Yoni Brook, Ted Passon and Nicole Salazar, follows Krasner on the campaign trail, and then in office, as he tries to implement reform. Krasner granted the filmmakers remarkable access all along.
“I don’t think it’s actually been that difficult for us. We made a decision very early on that we were going to allow a level of transparency,” Krasner says. “It’s not a reality show. It is reality… It really is people talking spontaneously about things they believe and problems that they are having. It is a real-time storytelling method that they’ve employed here.”
District attorneys typically limit their public interactions to campaign appearances and the odd press conference. Ordinary people rarely get a glimpse at how “the sausage is made.”
“It was really exciting to be able to see behind the scenes of an institution that’s often so opaque, that the public usually has no understanding of what goes on, how these decisions are made,” Passon notes. “It’s an institution and a position that has so much authority and autonomy over people’s lives and, for as much influence as it has, it’s amazing the deficit of understanding that the public gets on what actually happens in a D.A.’s office.”
The series examines the tremendous animus directed at Krasner by the city’s powerful Fraternal Order of Police. He has also faced resistance to change within his own office, from career prosecutors accustomed to a far different standard operating procedure.
“I came in thinking, maybe you get elected and you can just flip a switch and things can be different the next day,” Salazar admits, “but really understanding that Larry leads an office that has 600 employees, 300 attorneys, the extent to which really the culture of an institution shapes the ideas of that institution, just sort of what’s accepted practice, what people think is normal, is completely defined by the culture and not really by the law or not necessarily by the policies.”
Salazar adds, “Some of these attorneys, now with different leadership in place, have to grapple with what it means to change the way they do their jobs and even, within that change, how they see themselves.”
Last month, Krasner easily won the Democratic primary in his quest for a second term, overcoming a challenge by ex-Philadelphia Assistant D.A. Carlos Vega. Krasner ran once again on a progressive platform: against the death penalty, in favor of ditching cash bail for most offenses, and ending prosecutions for marijuana possession and sex work. Vega, running to Krasner’s right, earned financial support from a political action committee established by former police officers.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “Krasner’s Democratic primary win all but ensures that he will be re-elected in the November general election in the heavily Democratic city.” But pro-reform Philadelphians are planning to keep a close eye on what Krasner does next, assuming he wins another term.
“We still have lots of work to do,” Sarah Morris and Malik Neal wrote in an opinion piece published Thursday by the Philadelphia Inquirer. They credited Krasner for taking an “important first step” on ending cash bail, but said, “[R]eal progress has since been stalled.”
Morris and Neal concluded by writing, “This last election showed that the movement to end mass incarceration has real power. The forces of the status quo are on the way out. It’s not enough for Krasner and reform-minded judges to pay lip service to these ideas — our communities are demanding meaningful action.”
Krasner’s sympathies are clearly with the reformers, as Philly D.A. amply demonstrates.
“This is a grassroots national movement that has gotten this country to the point where it used to be basically 0-percent of the population lived in a jurisdiction with a progressive prosecutor. As of today it’s 10-percent—10-percent of the U.S. population, tens of millions of people, have now elected a progressive prosecutor,” Krasner tells Deadline. “We got maybe another 20 years to go until we see these effective, sweeping reforms.”
Krasner adds, “Let’s face it, in our democracy we often have the wrong kind of people running and they’re running for the wrong reasons. Well, let’s take some people who never thought about running but have the competency to do a thing and let’s get them in there at least for a while so they can try to do it. If we can get more people to run and more people to rally around and support them, get more of them elected, you’re going to see a massive and swift change in mass incarceration in the most incarcerated country in the world, that claims to be the land of freedom. We could get back to being the land of freedom.”