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After a Career Suing Cops, This Lawyer

Wants to Be Philly's Next District


Attorney
Larry Krasner is drawing national attention for his promises to reform
the city's punitive culture.

Civil rights attorney Larry Krasner has spent his career standing up to cops. A former
public defender who's no stranger to pro bono work, he's defended Black Lives Matter
protesters, ACT UP alums, the Arch Street United Methodist Church pastors, Grannies
for Peace, and Occupy Philly activists.

Krasner's being hailed as an unlikely favorite and a radical outsider who just might have
the gumptionand the supportto shake up Philadelphia's punitive culture.

So he hardly seems like someone who'd want to assume the mantle of one of America's
top prosecutor jobsfor one thing, Krasner has no formal political experience. But as
he watched the usual suspects throwing their hats in the ring for Philadelphia's 2017
district attorney's race, the 56-year-old felt like it was time to try and change things
from within. On February 8, standing alongside activists and organizers from groups
he'd previously defended, he announced his campaign. Just a few months later, as the
city gears up for its primary on May 16, Krasner's being hailed as an unlikely favorite
and a radical outsider who just might have the gumptionand the supportto shake up
Philadelphia's punitive culture and send a message to the country that mass
incarceration is a failed strategy.

Nowhere is the reality of "tough on crime" more evident than Philadelphia. Former DA
Lynne Abraham, winner of four straight terms from 1991 to 2010, was known both as
"America's Deadliest Prosecutor" and the "Queen of Death" for her fervid pursuit of
executions, over 100 in total. Former mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo is
among the most notorious cops in American history, once claiming he'd "make Attila
the Hun look like a faggot" while on the mayoral campaign trail. That legacy has helped
give the City of Brotherly Love the highest incarceration rate of the 10 largest cities in
the United States, twice the national average. (It's also the poorest, with one of the
lowest-rated public school systems to boot.)

Criminal justice crusaders saw some hope when Democrat Seth Williams, a self-
identified progressive reformer, took the job as the city's first African American DA in
2010. He claimed he'd champion reasonable reforms to chip away at mass incarceration.
But since then, Williams has managed to run up a rap sheet that evinces an almost
cartoonish level of corruption. He has been under FBI investigation since August 2015
and on the receiving end of the largest fine ever imposed by the Philadelphia Board of
Ethics for gift taking and failure to disclose contributions in excess of $175,000. He
fought for the death penalty and prosecuted a man who'd been cleared of murder by
DNA evidence. On February 10, Williams announced he would not seek a third term.
Then on March 21, he was indicted on 23 counts of corruption and bribery-related
charges. His alleged misbehavior, said an FBI special agent, was "brazen and wide-
ranging, as is the idea that a district attorney would so cavalierly trade on elected office
for financial gain."

"I didn't want to be a prosecutor," Krasner says, because "Philly had a culture that was
in love with the death penalty."

Into the void have sprung seven candidates, all jockeying for the Democratic
nomination ahead of the May primary and the right to square off with Republican
candidate Beth Grossman. Philadelphia is a deep blue stronghold, so the winner of the
primary will likely cruise in the general election. Krasner's campaign might be best
described as an insurgency, and one that has drawn the national spotlight.

Born in St. Louis, Krasner has made Philadelphia home since age nine. He comes from
a household that relied on disability checks to make ends meet, and he's a veteran of the
city's public school system. After attending the University of Chicago, he went on to
law school at Stanford, where he "accumulated a skyscraper-sized pile of student loans."
Upon graduation, he forewent prosecutor jobs to become a public defender in
Philadelphia, which he considers his hometown. "I didn't want to be a prosecutor," he
says, because "Philly had a culture that was in love with the death penalty."

In 1992, when then-President George H.W. Bush came to Philadelphia, ACT UP, the
famous activist group striving to end the AIDS crisis, marched a coffin full of fake
ashes through the city, protesting perceived inaction by the president. "The coffin
tipped, the ashes flew; I think the cops thought they were going to get HIV," Krasner
recalls. "[The cops'] reaction was hyper violentthey cracked one person's skull, made
many of them bleed." At that point, five years out of law school, he decided to dedicate
himself to "representing people who were making the world a better place."

In the years since, Krasner has filed more than 75 civil rights cases against police
officers, and gotten 800 narcotics convictions thrown out after exposing two officers to
have perjured themselves. Of the 420 protesters arrested at the 2012 Republican
National Convention, Krasner won an acquittal rate of 99 percent over four years.
Needless to say, these aren't the usual credentials for someone running for a position
sardonically referred to as "top cop." When I ask him about that term, he bristles. As a
district attorney, he says, "you're supposed to seek justice in an evenhanded wayso if
you know cops are dirty, you prosecute the cops."

Against the backdrop of a new federal administration that wants to toughen rules on
prosecuting crime, Krasner instead strongly believes that "mass incarceration hasn't
worked. It hasn't made us safer; it hasn't made us freer." He wants to abolish the death
penaltyPhilly is the only city in the Northeast that still has it. He's pledged to refuse to
bring cases that have resulted from illegal stop-and-frisk actions. In Pennsylvania,
which has more juveniles on life sentences without the possibility of parole than any
other state in the country, Krasner has promised thorough resentencing. Rather than
plastering uniform 35-year sentences on those juveniles, as the DA's office has
recommended, Krasner has vowed to revisit each case individually, considering things
like childhood trauma in reducing sentences, because "this one-size-fits-all sentencing is
appalling."
"This one-size-fits-all sentencing is appalling," Krasner says.

Krasner also wants to end cash bail and reform civil forfeiture. Over half the people
held in prisons in Philadelphia have not been convicted, but, unable to afford bail, have
no choice but to await their trial behind bars. Krasner wants to implement alternatives
for nonviolent offenders, like diverting addicts straight to treatment facilities, a practice
known as "sweat bail." When it comes to civil asset forfeiture, he says the city should
not take anything unless there's a conviction, and if assets are seized, they should go to
the city's general fund, not back to the DA's office, as the program is currently
structured.

The ideas seem to have resonated. Krasner has ripped up the playbook on incremental
reforms, accelerating initiatives that looked politically impossible just a few years back.
"Here's what's behind the sharp left turn in Philly's DA race," reads a recent article in
Philly Mag profiling Krasner's campaign. In fact, all seven Democratic candidates are
now campaigning as reformers. National activist groups have hailed Philadelphia's DA
race as a historic one, a rebuke of the zero-tolerance approach championed by the
current Oval Office.

"After decades of 'wars' on crime and drugs, public sentiment is now shifting toward a
more expansive view of crime and justice," says Marc Mauer, executive director of the
Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that works on criminal justice reform. "Fortunately, a
growing number of prosecutors view themselves as part of that movement." Indeed,
Krasner is not alone. 2016 saw reform candidates defeat hardline prosecutors in DA
races in Florida, Louisiana, and Illinois. After a poor showing in the 2016 election cycle
at the federal level, the Democratic Party has been refocusing its energy on local
elections, and district attorneys' offices have become an unlikely seat of progressive
reform. Prosecutors are elected in all but four states, around 2,400 seats in total, a major
political post that often runs uncontested.

George Soros invested $1.45 million in a super-PAC that backs Krasner.

Krasner is heartened to see criminal justice reform become so popular in his city's race
but remains skeptical of some of the rhetoric. Many of his competitors are former
prosecutors, insiders, or assistant DAs. "The only other candidate who said he would
unconditionally oppose the death penalty was supervising death penalties six months
ago," Krasner says, boasting that he's been "walking the walk for 30 years."

National groups are taking notice. Our Revolution, the progressive political action
group associated with Bernie Sanders, endorsed Krasner. So, too, did Color of Change
PAC, as well as major union groups Unite Here, PASNAP, and 1199C. He banked the
endorsement of pop singer John Legend. And billionaire George Soros invested $1.45
milliona stunning amount for a local electionin a super-PAC called Philadelphia
Justice and Public Safety that backs Krasner. That move brought extended scrutiny from
his competitors, who have now started running negative attack ads aiming to identify
Krasner as unsympathetic to victims.

Notably absent from that list of endorsements is the Fraternal Order of Police,
Philadelphia's police union, which was clashing with Krasner even before his campaign
took off. When former Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy was involved
in a brawl with two off-duty Philly police officers, Krasner represented him,
successfully getting all charges against him dropped. That led FOP President John
McNesby to describe Krasner's candidacy as "hilarious." "He's not laughing now,"
chuckles Krasner. In March, the FOP endorsed Rich Negrin.

Still, Krasner believes that rank-and-file police will welcome his candidacy, if he can
win. He points to his close relationships with multiple commissioners and the officers
whose children he's represented. He says he believes that the police will appreciate
working with a DA who doesn't spend his time courting a run for governor. The DA's
office in Philadelphia has often served as a launch pad for political careers at the state
and national levels. But Krasner seems to view a stint as the district attorney as a
culmination of his life's work, rather than a stepping stone: "My chair after the DA's
chair," he says, "will be a beach chair."