On Tuesday, Philadelphians elected Larry Krasner to be their district attorney. Krasner, a longtime civil-rights lawyer and critic of mass incarceration, has been a frequent litigant against abusive cops and boasts a list of rabble-rousing clientele including activists from Black Lives Matter and Occupy Philly. He was propelled into office by an energized left coalition led by youth and people of color. Their organizing work boosted turnout by at least 69 percent compared with the city’s last DA’s race.
Even as President Trump fulminates against immigrant gangsters and Attorney General Sessions endeavors to reinvigorate the failed “war on crime,” voters have elected a candidate who has said he wants to “end the era of mass incarceration.” It’s an enormous task. Since the 1970s, American policing and prisons have metastasized: At the end of 1980 state prisons held 304,844 people, but by the end of 2015 they held more than 1,330,000. The country’s entire system of cages, which includes everything from federal prisons to immigrant-detention centers, incarcerates more than 2.3 million. Incarceration rates began to decline in 2010, but reducing prison populations to levels comparable to, say, those of Western Europe, will require big changes. The policing and prosecuting practices that filled our prisons are deeply ingrained in the day-to-day practices of the criminal-justice system.
One path forward has been presented by the Coalition for a Just District Attorney, comprising nearly 30 local groups, in their just-released “Vision Of Transformative Policies” for Krasner’s first 100 Days. Their agenda includes ending civil-asset forfeiture, a shameful program allowing police to seize people’s property before they were convicted of a crime (Krasner’s Republican opponent had overseen this program during her time in the DA’s office). It also demands that Krasner decline to prosecute many “quality of life” offenses, from drug possession to prostitution; bring the office’s moribund Conviction Review Unit to life so that it keeps the wrongfully convicted out of prison; take into account whether filing certain charges would increase an immigrant’s risk of deportation; cease to deal with police officers with track records of misconduct; and adopt an open-file system for pretrial discovery, so that defense lawyers have immediate access to the information that prosecutors will use against their clients.
Krasner has not yet issued a full response to this lengthy list of proposals. But he ran on a pledge to divert low-level offenses from the criminal-justice system, crack down on prosecutor complicity with police misconduct, and right wrongful convictions. It won’t all, of course, be easy. He must confront possible resistance from DA office veterans, whom he can fire, and from cops, whom he cannot (though he can and should prosecute them, of course, if they break the law).