BY DAVE DAVIES – WHYY NEWSWORKS
Ask Larry Krasner, who's never worked as a prosecutor, why he's the right guy to be Philadelphia's next district attorney, and he has a ready answer.
"Because I've never been a prosecutor," he says.
There's more to it than that, but the heart of Krasner's pitch is that the ingrained culture of the district attorney's office has been so wrong-headed for so long that only someone free from its influences can bring the kind of change Philadelphia needs.
Krasner, 55, is a St. Louis native who went to Stanford Law School and spent a career in Philadelphia as a public defender and civil rights lawyer, challenging police misconduct and defending protesters.
I asked him to describe the culture in the DA's office he thinks is so destructive.
"That culture is that 'we're going charge the highest charge possible, we're going to bring every case possible, and then if we get a conviction on something, we're going to get the longest sentence possible,'" Krasner said. "That mentality may elect DA's to higher office, but the problem is that, now, the chickens have come home to roost, and we have prisons that are full and public schools that are empty."
Krasner said that culture means taxpayers spend a fortune on prisons while other needs are neglected.
When he's DA, Krasner said, prosecutors will decline to prosecute more cases and handle others differently.
He cited a change officials made in Chicago, where jails were jammed with suspects in more than 80,000 shoplifting cases a year.
"And so they made a decision, that rather than pursuing the highest charge they could on those retail theft cases, they would pursue a much lower charge, which is almost like being a traffic ticket," he said.
"It emptied the jails," he said. "Taxpayers were no longer spending $40,000 a year to keep a low-level retail theft offender in jail for an extended period of time."
I asked how a bodega owner who finally got someone who was stealing from his store arrested would feel about the thief being back the next day with a citation in his pocket.
"Well, let's understand, a ticket isn't necessarily a kiss," Krasner said. "It can be 30, 60 or 90 days in jail."
The point, Krasner said, is that you can make charging decisions differently and avoid doing as much damage the city's poor and the public treasury as the current system does.
Krasner said he'd never seek the death penalty. He'd reform the bail system that keeps so many poor defendants in jail before their cases are heard.
And he would drastically change the asset forfeiture program which seizes property from drug suspects, and generally try to "de-carcerate" — put fewer people away with felony convictions that will keep them unemployed and poor.
Krasner cautioned that he isn't saying no one should go to jail.
"There are 6 percent of the criminals that commit 60 percent of the crime," he said. "And they need to be found, arrested, prosecuted vigorously and appropriately and receive an appropriate sentence."
I asked Krasner about the assessment I've heard from a few people that, while he may be committed and hardworking, he's abrasive, not so likable.
"I think it's true," he said after a pause. "I have a very direct style. I'm very upfront about what I think. The culture in politics of 'let's all get along — Mr. Hitler you have a nice mustache' is not my culture. I think you have to speak truth to power."
I asked if his style would undercut his efforts to achieve change in the justice system, since he'd need the cooperation of other players with independent power — judges, police commanders, Council members, legislators, mayors.
Nope, he said. He's been in rooms with them and can work with them when there's common ground to find.
Can he win?
Krasner got in the race late, and we haven't yet seen whether he can raise the money he'll need to get his message out.
One possibility is that Safety and Justice PAC, a political committee funded by billionaire George Soros, might wage an independent effort to support his candidacy, as it has for other county prosecutor candidates around the country.
Krasner noted that, if that were to happen, he wouldn't know, since the law prohibits coordination between a candidate and an independent expenditure effort.
He did say there's now a national trend of voters in big cities choosing progressive candidates for district attorney, and he said it's clear he's the most progressive candidate in this field.
There are seven Democratic candidates for Philadelphia district attorney. The primary is May 16.