ABOVE PHOTO: Lawrence Krasner
For 30 years, Lawrence Krasner has been on the opposite side of the city’s District Attorneys, trying to help clients facing criminal charges and police brutality. Now he hopes to change how the office operates as the Philadelphia’s next District Attorney.
By Denise Clay
For most of the last 30 years, those who have worked in Philadelphia’s District Attorney’s office have viewed defense attorney Lawrence Krasner as the opposition.
Now, he wants to be their boss.
After an extensive career as a defense attorney, Krasner is among the Democratic candidates in the running to be the City of Philadelphia’s next District Attorney. Krasner began his career as a public defender in Philadelphia in 1987. In 1991, he went to the Federal Public Defenders office before deciding to strike out on his own in 1993, with a focus on police brutality and criminal defense.
Krasner is a partner in the law firm of Krasner and Long LLC and a graduate of the University of Chicago and Stanford University School of Law. He sat down with the SUN to talk about his vision for the District Attorney’s office, how politics has taken the “justice” out of the justice system, and why the prosecutor’s office needs a defense attorney.
SUN: Thank you so much for your time today, Mr. Krasner. As a career defense attorney, it’s a little unusual that you’ve decided to run for District Attorney. What made you decide to do it?
LK: I decided to run for District Attorney because I’ve been in court four or five days a week for the last 30 years watching this DA’s office make things worse instead of better in almost every way. It’s been running in the wrong direction.
For the last 30 years, the culture of the DA’s office has been committed to demonizing all criminal defendants and has pandered to fear. It’s dehumanized people who were arrested and brought into the system, subjected them to unjustifiably high charges, has refused to use diversion in cases where it makes sense and seeks the absolute max in all convictions. It’s not law enforcement. It’s politics.
SUN: When you say that it’s not about law enforcement, it’s about politics, what do you mean?
LK: I mean that the current way that the DA’s office is run is based on a vengeful impulse that bankrupts public education and breaks people and communities that don’t need to be broken. After people have spent time in jail, they go back to a broken community because no one has done anything to improve it. It continues the cycle of poverty.
Let’s get concrete. The number of state prisoners in Pennsylvania has increased seven-fold since the 1970s. In Philadelphia, the statistics are even worse and every one of those jail cells represents an unnecessary cost. To put someone in jail costs as much as it does to pay an entry-level public school teacher, about $40,000.
SUN: So you think that the amount of money we spend on incarceration has kept us from providing the best education possible?
LK: Despite the best efforts of Philadelphia’s teachers, the money we spend on jails means that the kids in our schools don’t have the same opportunities that I had when I was in school. Through education, we can have sustainable crime reduction. About 6 percent of criminals commit 60 percent of the crimes and belong in jail. But most of the people in jail don’t belong in that category. They’ve been painted with a broad brush and are all being treated the same way. Families shouldn’t be broken up for non-violent offenses.
SUN: Some of the things that you’ve brought up have been talked about a lot during this campaign, particularly mass incarceration and cash bail. Do you sense a sea change? And if so, what do you attribute it to?
LK: I think that things have already changed. It’s not just the position of progressives and Democrats that mass incarceration is a disaster, it’s the position of Republicans, including some staunch conservatives. The Koch Brothers are a blight on politics because they dump money into things that a lot of people don’t appreciate, but even they believe that it’s a disaster. If you have both left and right agreeing on this, it’s no longer controversial.
Every other candidate has had to make a U-Turn to go the way I’ve been going for 30 years. My view is that everything that’s gotten us to this place has got to change.
SUN: You’ve brought up the subject of changing the District Attorney’s office a lot during this conversation, which leads to an obvious question. You’re the only candidate for District Attorney who has never been a prosecutor. Why should Philadelphia’s voters trust you with the office?
LK: One of my greatest strengths is that no one has spent more time in a courtroom with prosecutors than I have. Unlike everyone else, I haven’t been a part of the problem. I haven’t been doing the wrong things all these years. I have no baggage. I can prune the tree and determine which branches need to stay or go. I can help justice oriented, forward thinking prosecutors advance while adjusting, retraining and changing the priorities of the office to make it run more the way it should have been running. I can make the office more just with more of an emphasis on safety.
SUN: You don’t think that the DA’s office has been focused on safety?
LK: Justice as a fundamental tenet makes us safer. Conservatives have always tried to sell people on the notion that law enforcement should be allowed to cheat. That the only way to get safety is to let law enforcement do whatever it wants. That’s complete nonsense. You can only have safety if the Constitution and the rules are followed.
SUN: Can you elaborate on that?
LK: Sure. For example, when you break the rule that says you’re supposed to give discoverable information to the defense, an innocent person can get convicted. When an innocent person gets convicted, a guilty person goes free. Most of the exonerations from Death Row since the 1970s have been because missing files have been recovered, not through DNA.
SUN: You’ve spent a lot of your career fighting on behalf of people who have been abused by the system in various ways. Specifically, you’ve litigated a lot of police brutality cases. How would a District Attorney’s office run by Lawrence Krasner handle these cases?
LK: For 30 years, I’ve filed Section 1983 lawsuits against police corruption and brutality, especially people accused of assault by police officers covering their tracks. I hate bullies, whether they’re robbing ladies in the street or wearing a uniform and beating the crap out of someone. For the last 30 years, the DA’s office has supported this kind of thing.
I speak with a lot of credibility when I say that my office will be evenhanded and go after police officers when they commit crimes. I’m going to start a special unit made up of personnel within the DA’s office that don’t work with officers directly to address police brutality.
SUN: What kind of relationship do you think your DA’s office would have with the police? You’ve spent a lot of time on the other side of the table against them. Do you think you’ll be able to work with them?
LK: The long shadow of [former Mayor and Police Commissioner] Frank Rizzo hangs over all of us. That culture has not entirely gone. We still have a city where the head of the [Fraternal Order of Police] is essentially Rizzo-lite; an apologist and supporter of corrupt officers who justifies police brutality.
I want to stick up for the good officers, the ones that are not brutal and corrupt. I want to support them in their efforts to have a modern department that is close to the community and is neither brutal nor corrupt.
SUN: Stop and Frisk is something that gets talked about a lot here in Philadelphia. How do you feel about that? Will you prosecute cases with stop and frisk evidence?
LK: It doesn’t make us safer. An illegal stop and frisk program feels like an occupying army. It drives a wedge between the police, who don’t really want to be doing this anyway, and the neighborhoods.
When the police stop and frisk someone, they find something one out of every 50 times. This means that you’ve stopped 49 people who did nothing wrong. You’re not stopping them there’s a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. They’re only being stopped because they’re young, male, Black and Brown or White and poor and happen to be outside.
It ends up breaking lines of communication. By the third time someone has been stopped for doing nothing wrong, it becomes more unlikely that they’ll help law enforcement. They won’t go to the police if they’ve witnessed something. They won’t become a police officer. You’ve lost that person.
Now in terms of prosecution, the District Attorney doesn’t tell the police what to do. But he or she does have discretion to reject cases or parts of cases when the DA feels that is just. We have an ethical obligation to seek justice under the Constitution. A District Attorney shouldn’t be accepting unconstitutional cases.
For example, if a police officer came to me with a case where they’d searched a man with a bulge in his pocket and just happened to find a bag of marijuana, I’d take that case. But, if that’s the same story they told the other 49 times they stopped someone in that same place, under those circumstances a District Attorney whose sworn to uphold the Constitution would reject that case.
Philadelphia is fortunate in that it has a progressive police commissioner in Richard Ross. I have a lot of respect for him and for [former Commissioner Charles] Ramsey and I can work with him in a lot of areas. Commissioner Ross and I can have conversations about the police in which we can collaborate and cooperate to make Philadelphians safer.
SUN: Both Lynne Abraham and Seth Williams have asked for the death penalty, including some cases in which you’ve been involved. How do you feel about the death penalty? If elected District Attorney, will you ever ask for it?
LK: There shouldn’t be a death penalty at all. I wouldn’t seek the death penalty. What I know about the death penalty, both as a juror and a defense attorney, says it’s immoral and destroys communities.
Here’s a couple of quick facts. Most municipalities have moved on from the death penalty. Philadelphia is the only city that still uses it outside of the South. New Jersey doesn’t use it.
The only reason Pennsylvania is lagging behind the rest of the East Coast is because we have a bunch of [President Donald] Trump voters in the middle of the state. Right now, $1 billion being spent on the death penalty. That’s the equivalent of 500 teachers per year since the 1970s statewide.
I refuse to have any part of it because it takes away from kids and long-term safety. We have to think about prevention of crime the same way we look at health, meaning that we need to look long-term. The real emphasis has to be on prevention. I also think that punishment should be more centered on the needs of survivors and victims. People won’t participate in the system because the end is a cell and that offers no resolution or closure for the victim and there’s little change. They should be asked, “How would you feel about this defendant being made to do community service?” or other things. I’m very much in favor of that and people are more likely to participate if it’s more community centered. Right now, it’s more politically centered and it’s been that way under everyone who has been the District Attorney.
Plus, we don’t have any evidence that shows that the threat of executions deters crime. All it does is get fear-mongering politicians elected so that they can run for mayor or for governor since it plays well upstate.
SUN: As you know, the current DA, Seth Williams, has decided not to run for reelection due to his indictment on federal charges. Did he do the right thing by resigning? What do you think?
LK: I think he did the right thing when he withdrew from the race. But, I’m not interested in piling on. I think he should get out of the office now for the sake of the office.
SUN: Thanks a lot for your time, Mr. Krasner.
LK: Thank you.