Philly D.A. (2021)

This is a thread to discuss Philly D.A. is an eight part Independent Lens docuseries now playing on PBS. The series follows a newly elected D.A., Larry Krasner, who never worked as a prosecutor, but worked as a civil rights defense attorney instead. For most of my life, I’ve thought about improving government services, and I’ve gained some thoughts on the obstacles preventing this. For these reasons, I’m really interested in following Krasner and tracking his progress. Here’s a clip:

6 thoughts on “Philly D.A. (2021)

  1. Notes on episode 1:

    1. (Note: I’m writing this about 20 minutes into the episode) In an early scene, Krasner and his team are talking about arrests involving marijuana possession and prostitution. He and his team find the amount of arrests ridiculous, and they are planning to end this. I haven’t studied those issues, and I know very little about the criminal justice system, but speaking as a layperson I would say those two crimes should be a low priority–so I sympathize with Krasner here.
      However, what worries me about Krasner and his team is that they don’t seem to have a good understanding of the reasons the previous D.A.s (and presumably the police) acted this way. Perhaps, they assume previous D.A.s had a misguided approach to law enforcement. That could be the case, but it would be much wiser to extensively study the situation before concluding this. In my experience, governments often do things that don’t make sense on the surface, but actually have reasons behind them–e.g., sound reasons, lack of a better option, or a matter of practical/political constraints.(Krasner’s wife, a state(?) judge, remarks that Krasner has been studying the D.A.’s office for “30 years” and had ideas about what they should do. My guess is that this study was largely from the outside.
    2. I sympathize with Krasner’s decrying of “mass incarceration,” but I would point back my previous point. Additionally, as D.A. I do think he’s primary job is the safety of the public and also helping victims of crimes. If he is not effective at the latter–and to be more precise–if the public doesn’t perceive him to be effective–only working on the former would seem like a failure in my view.
    3. Here’s a caveat to my last point: if he reduced incarceration on smaller offenses, and successfully prosecuted more serious crimes, like murder, rape, robbery, and big white collar crimes–I would see this as a significant success. Speaking as a layperson, I would be happy if something like this happened in Honolulu.
    4. I’m not sure to what degree Krasner reached out the police unions or professional bodies, but the episode creates the impression that he has done little of this, and he seems to have alienated and antagonized during the campaign. I feel like he will have a hard time succeeding if he doesn’t work well with them. (This kinda reminds me of Michelle Rhee’s stint as Chancellor of D.C. public schools. She alienated the board and the teacher’s union, if I’m not mistaken, and I think contributed to her downfall.)
    5. In my view, vilifying the key stakeholders involved in government service is a big mistake. Some of them may be the problem, but if they have power, it will be hard to succeed if you completely alienate them. Additionally, and maybe more importantly, my sense is that many, if not the vast majority, are well-intentioned; they’re not the villains. My sense is impediments to improvements and change are systemic. The system often creates bad apples who may have started off as good ones. Even if this analysis is not correct, it’s far better to present this approach publicly to stakeholders. Treat them with respect and show them you value their work.

    By the way, Krasner is sworn in in January, 2018.

    (Con’t)

    • He’s bringing in outsiders, defense attorney’s, academics(?), activists(?). To me, that’s OK, but I think it’s really important that he has some people who have prosecutorial experience, even from the Philadelphia D.A.’s office, if not someone currently working, someone who worked in the past, or someone who worked in a prosecutor’s office in another state or city.
    • Krasner, on his first speech to the entire office, says, “Now I have to figure out what I’m going to say.” I couldn’t tell if he was being facetious, but the communication’s guy’s comments suggests that Krasner was serious. That’s a bad sign–and a bad sign if the communications person didn’t advise him against this and prepare him for this.
    • “If the public sees a lot less people in jail for dumb stuff, they’re going to think that’s good.” This makes sense, but what people think as “dumb stuff” is likely not the same. And again, I think it’s important to get a good idea of why people are in jail for dumb stuff, and not just assume the reason is dumb.
    • Krasner didn’t talk to other key stakeholders about his plan to end cash bail for certain offenses–explaining in a group of key stakeholders that he’s more concerned with getting things done–as if calling them and getting their views is a waste of time or not as productive as simply planning on his own. The opposite is true in my view. If he doesn’t get their input and buy-in, he will have a much harder time to get things done; or said another way: he needs their help, or at least lack of opposition, to get things done. That’s what I would predict, anyway.
    • They’re going to make a major policy announcement, but they don’t have the details worked out. Not good.
    • I forgot to mention he fired a bunch of Assistant District Attorneys. I would be concerned if they were really experienced, and the replacements would lack experience. Also, if the process to retain or fire was not done fairly or effectively, that would not be good as well
  2. Notes on episode 2:

    • Before say anything else, I want to say a few things in defense of Krasner and his team, or at least a qualifier for my mostly negative comments so far. For one thing, Krasner and his team could be right—the Philly D.A.’s office may need the type of massive changes they’re calling for, and maybe the police union will vehemently resist change, even necessary changes that will improve the police department and the criminal justice system overall. In that case, good faith outreach, attempts at schmoozing and engaging in reasonable dialogue would be futile, and a political war between Krasner and the police union may be inevitable.

      But I’m very skeptical this is true. For one thing, reformers can too easily see the other side as incorrigible and dismiss the idea that they have good reasons or good people on that side. To me, this idea that there is no person of good will and integrity on the other side seems very unlikely and almost unreasonable. In my opinion, the proof of this must be really overwhelming.

      My instincts say Krasner or someone from his team should have looked for allies in the police union or police department. There has to be some of who want to clean up the police department and adhere to ethical and professional standards. Finding those allies would be worth the effort.

      Whatever the case may be, Krasner’s chances of reforming the system will be small if the police union and other key stakeholders go to war against him.

    • Episode 2 touches on the problem of sending too many juveniles to a detention center (or something like that), which can make the situation worse for the juveniles who go there. That is, they might be more likely to commit crimes after than not. Because of that Krasner’s people push to reduce the number of kids that go there. I’m very sympathetic to this—and I’m very sympathetic to the idea that people need better schools, counseling, job training, recreational activities, etc. versus just locking people up. I agree with this.

      However, while Krasner and his team sympathizes with troubled youth who get worse because of the system, I sense they don’t sympathize or see the viewpoint of the public, particularly victims of crimes and those who don’t feel safe in their communities. I think the D.A. has to address this as well, and if he does a poor job of doing so, the citizens will likely remove him and many of his needed reforms may not come to pass.

  3. Notes on episode 3:

    • Krasner made a campaign promise to never seek the death penalty, but a police officer was murdered during the previous administration (and I assumed tried the case), and now Krasner has to decide if he’s going to seek the death penalty or not. The officer’s sister and grandmother want Krasner to seek the death penalty.

      Krasner seems to be sticking to his guns. Since I don’t support the death penalty I’m sympathetic to his position, but I also think that as the D.A. he has to convey to the police officers that he values their lives and supports them, while also explaining why he opposes the death penalty. Maybe he has done that, but the documentary doesn’t show these efforts. It doesn’t sound like Krasner even thinks to do this.

    • In this episode, Kranser removes the long-time head of the juvenile section (one of the staff that was retained), and replacing her with a person from Krasner’s team. Krasner makes this move because the goal to reduce sending kids to a juvenile detention center wasn’t happening.

      The new head of the section has a meeting where she roles out a new policy. The prosecutors in attendance ask questions, but the problem, in my view, is that this is the first time they have seen it. The former head, who is still in the section, mentions that Krasner’s team just doesn’t trust the prosecutors; they don’t want to hear why things were done in the past. Based on the documentary, this seems accurate, and it’s a significant problem from Krasner and his reformers. On one hand, maybe the old ways are bad and the old timers resist change because they’re stuck in their ways, they’re incompetent or lazy. That could be the case. On the other hand, treating them all that way is not going to be a recipe for success. Additionally, I really think Krasner and his team need to understand the reasons for previous policies–and not just dismiss those reasons as illegitimate. Some of the reasons may not be valid, but others will be–or it will be critical for he and his team to understand this. I really think this is one of the biggest mistakes he’s making.

  4. Here’s a quote from G.K. Chesterton that really sums up one of the big errors that I think Krasner and his team are committing:

    In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

    This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

    This line stands out: “There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools;…”

    My sense is this essentially what Krasner and his team are guilty of. They may think the previous administrators were corrupt, racist, or ideologically wrong (read: conservative). Again, some of this may be true, but it may not be. It’s arrogant to be so sure about this, without fully trying to understand the history and reasons for the policies they’re trying to change.

  5. Episode 4

    This episode focuses on probation–specifically, Krasner’s belief that the probations in Philadelphia are too long. The film shows us this through the eyes of one woman, who has been on probation for years. From her vantage point, probation seems unfair and stress inducing. Someone on probation could have a good job for years and avoid breaking any laws,, but one violation of the their probation can land them in jail.

    The filmmaker do try to show the other side, by featuring a judge, who talks presents a different view–namely, that probation has “sticks” that are helpful to keep people on probation on the right path. I would have liked to have seen them feature a person who benefited from this or from people who violated probation and caused harm or went on a bad path fairly quickly.

    In this episode Krasner and his team take on the judges because the judges determine the length of probation. Like with the police and police unions, I don’t think he tries to work in good faith and cooperation with the judges–primarily because he assumes they don’t have good reasons to have a different opinion. One judge expresses resentment, when the Krasner’s office sends a letter asking the judges to reduce probation times. Another judge says that some of the ideas may have merit, but some judges may be reacting negatively to the messenger–i.e., “Oh it’s coming from Krasner so we have to oppose it.” To me, he himself is primarily to blame for this perception.

  6. Episode 5

    One part of this episode centered on adolescents who were given life sentences without parole. The episode focused on one of these convicts and the family whose son he shot and killed. Krasner’s office worked to get reduce the sentence to 26 years; the convict has been in prison for 27 years, and now has the opportunity for parole.

    Krasner likes to emphasize that the solutions to crime go beyond law enforcement (including the D.A.’s office)–that more resources need to go into prevention (e.g., better education, etc.). He mentions that if majority of resources go to law enforcement, they’ll just be working to cleaning up the mess. I tend to agree with this.

    One thing he doesn’t really mention–but the parent of the victim does–is relatively easy access to guns, including teenagers having this easy access. The convict mentions the ease at which he got the gun he used to kill. In my view, this is a huge problem right here.

    Krasner doesn’t mention this. Additionally, I wonder if reducing access to guns is something he and police officers and the police union could agree on. If so, this is an area where they could cooperate and create good will between them.

    But, again, the impression I get is that Krasner came in assuming bad things about the law enforcement, and even the judges. Indeed, in this episode, he reacts in a similar way when the U.S. Attorney criticizes him. (Krasner mentions that when you deal with a bully, referring to the U.S. Attorney, sometimes you have to work alone.)

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