I worked as an assistant district attorney for second-term Philly DA Larry Krasner for two years after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania’s law school. I was, frankly, ecstatic to join a leader of serious criminal justice reform.
I still support reform, but Krasner … not so much. What I experienced in Krasner’s office was nothing short of utter disarray, a topic I’ve written on before. He promised that his administration would not compromise public safety. He was wrong. And unless he drastically changes course, he will continue to fail.
The many issues I experienced firsthand with Larry Krasner’s office operations, include inadequate training, insufficient staffing, resistance to hiring from local law schools, inexperienced supervisors, political division and abysmal morale.
Larry Krasner, I fear, has become a stain on the criminal justice reform movement, lending credence to the conservative stereotype that reformers are clueless ideologues rather than effective leaders. More importantly, Philadelphians are dying in record numbers. With Philadelphia breaking its all-time homicide record in 2021, internal turmoil, and large numbers of attorneys and staff fleeing his office, the future is dim.
But there are concrete ways Krasner can improve.
Krasner has failed to do what real leaders do: hold themselves accountable for mistakes and adjust accordingly. He needs to step up. Recently, Krasner was lambasted for claiming that, “We don’t have a crisis of crime” in Philadelphia. This was a particularly bizarre thing for a touted progressive to say, given that a stunning 93 percent of Philly’s homicide and shooting victims are people of color, particularly Black. While Krasner did apologize for this statement, it makes one wonder whether the apology was just a response to political backlash from an otherwise obstinate DA.
Larry Krasner consistently blames the pandemic for the violent crime spike. While this likely contributed, the record shows more to the dismal story.
As with most problems in life, it starts at home. Records show that 130 staff members left the office in 2021 alone, 70 of which were attorneys. But like his crime crisis denial, Krasner refuses to acknowledge any office personnel problems.
I’ve written on the many issues I experienced firsthand with Larry Krasner’s office operations, including inadequate training, insufficient staffing, resistance to hiring from local law schools, inexperienced supervisors, political division and abysmal morale. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently published a piece further exposing the office’s inexperience, noting that, “Nearly 60 percent of lawyers now on staff have joined the office just in the last four years. Of the 53 hired in 2021, about 75 percent were newly admitted to the bar this year.”
Like with any profession, inexperience results in mistakes. This may explain Krasner’s startling decline in conviction rates. Alexander Marsella, PhD candidate in economics at West Virginia University, crunched the numbers. The below graphs show stunning declines in conviction rates for serious crimes since Larry Krasner took office in early 2018, including aggravated assault, armed robberies, fatal shootings, and illegal gun possession.
How can Larry Krasner fix the personnel issue?
First, regardless of experience, he simply needs more attorneys. He can start by recruiting from local law schools. In fall 2018, Krasner announced to his new hires, including me, that his future hiring plan would focus nationally, not regionally. In his words, Penn is Philadelphia’s only “A-list” school. The rest were “B-list” schools. Putting the tone-deaf nature of this statement aside, this hiring plan makes no sense. National hires have no ties to the region and leave quickly. Local recruits are invested in the city.
Second, he needs experienced prosecutors to guide the many inexperienced attorneys he already has or will need to hire. But unfortunately, Krasner’s mantra is “out with the old, in with the new.” He will need to publicly admit his approach was foolhardy and hope he can convince experienced prosecutors from regional DA and US Attorney offices to join the fold.
Indeed, Krasner must admit that he erred in his categorical condemnation of past regimes or “traditional” prosecution. He took the very real problems of prosecutorial misconduct, mass incarceration and racism, and falsely concluded that traditional prosecution was evil across the board. He even went so far as to compare prosecutors from past regimes to Nazis, drawing harsh criticism from Court of Common Pleas Judge Benjamin Learner.
Larry Krasner must admit mistakes. He must address his major office dysfunction, turnover, and his attorneys’ lack-of-experience. He must make amends with the police and city officials. Otherwise, the next four years will be painful, or, to be more accurate, deadly.
To be sure, Philadelphia’s criminal justice system, like the nation at large, saw and still has real problems. Larry Krasner should be commended for exonerating over 20 wrongly convicted people. Krasner likewise touts a 50-percent reduction in Philadelphia’s jail population in 27 months.
What Krasner fails to mention is that, as former Mayor Michael Nutter recently noted, Philadelphia’s jail population was already falling by the thousands before Larry Krasner took office in 2018. This tracks astonishing national trends. Between 2001 and 2017, the incarceration rate for Black men declined by 34 percent, with the incarceration rate for Black men aged 25 to 29, 20 to 24, and 18 to 19 declining by 56 percent, 60 percent and 72 percent, respectively.
This is not to say there is not a problem with prosecutorial misconduct, racism and mass incarceration in this country. But it does signal that Krasner’s extreme approach of gutting the office of experienced attorneys and blasting past regimes was not only logistically and politically unwise, but gravely mistaken. Instead, he should draw on the knowledge of experienced prosecutors and other law enforcement officials to glean what they were doing right instead of jettisoning the proverbial baby with the bathwater.
Finally, Krasner needs to mend his relationship with the police. I know, this is a big ask for someone whose supporters chanted “F— the police” and “No good cops in a racist system,” at Krasner’s 2017 victory party. But former mayor Nutter also recently criticized this “anti-police narrative,” and with good reason.
The DA’s office must work well with the police and other city departments to effectively stop the bleeding. At best, making enemies out of officers integral to public safety is not helping the problem. At worst, failing to recognize the distinction between good cops and bad cops dissuades good people from becoming officers and fosters further mistrust between police and the communities they must serve. Less trust makes proactive crime prevention much harder.
Krasner has a lot of work to do. But changing his ways is the only option as the city, particularly impoverished communities of color, are ravaged by violence. Krasner must admit mistakes. He must address his major office dysfunction, turnover, and his attorneys’ lack-of-experience. He must make amends with the police and city officials. Otherwise, the next four years will be painful, or, to be more accurate, deadly.
Thomas C. Mandracchia, a Philly resident, is currently a corporate litigation attorney in Wilmington, Delaware and continues to be active in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania politics.
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Header photo by Jared Piper / Philadelphia City Council