Let’s begin with the high-five. Yesterday’s deeply reported Inquirer story by Samantha Melamed, Chris Palmer and Dylan Purcell detailing a troubling exodus of lawyers from the district attorney’s office, and its ensuing chaos, is what a city’s newspaper of record ought to be in the business of doing. According to their stellar reporting, 261 attorneys are gone, including 70 of the idealistic gunslingers Krasner himself recruited to remake the very definition of big city prosecution. No wonder we keep reading about botched prosecutions and witnesses not showing up to court. The DA’s office is chaotic and inexperienced at a time of mass crisis.
For those of us largely sympathetic with Krasner’s big picture goals—we do incarcerate too many; cash bail does criminalize being impoverished; the probation and parole system is a type of prison itself—the young lawyers who have bailed on Krasner appear to be kindred spirits. We may share the goal, but we end up turned off by the district attorney’s inability to actually get things done, not to mention his penchant for self-aggrandizement and a Trump-like allergy to admitting mistakes.
At first blush, the Inquirer exposé is proof positive of something I wrote early in Krasner’s first term: Being district attorney is not about leading a movement so much as it’s a management position. You’ve got 300 lawyers looking to you to lead them up a hill. That requires not only highfalutin rhetoric, but also all the amino acids of managing people: emotional intelligence, empathy, an ability to work well with others, the modeling of grace under pressure. In Philly DA, the gripping 8-part PBS series about Krasner, we see Maria Quiñones-Sánchez gallantly trying her best to coach Krasner into embracing these qualities; flummoxed, he finally realizes she’s trying to get him to “not be me.”
Time and again, we’ve seen examples of how Krasner’s go-it-alone instincts actually jeopardize the very reforms he wishes to bring into being.
Time and again, we’ve seen examples of how Krasner’s go-it-alone instincts actually jeopardize the very reforms he wishes to bring into being. At one point in Philly DA, he shows up, camera crew in tow, for his first Criminal Justice Advisory Board meeting. It was one of the first times Krasner had been in a room with then-Police Commissioner Richard Ross, and he announced that his office would be declining to prosecute a lot more of Ross’s arrests than his predecessor had. Ross’ blank-faced stare at the news speaks volumes.
“Is that the time to disclose that to the Commissioner?” Marian Braccia asked me earlier this year. She ran the Domestic Violence Diversion program under Seth Williams and Krasner and is now a professor at Temple University, and she was in the room that day. “Is that the place to do it? Or do you talk directly to the Commissioner, so you’re on the same page?”
Seriously? That Krasner didn’t know that can only be proof that even the most brilliant minds can be dumb as hell when it comes to understanding other human beings. Larry Krasner had never run anything bigger than his own boutique law firm and had always been a sole pugilist in the arena, relentlessly punching up; why anyone would have thought that he could manage a bureaucracy or think strategically about how to make systemic change is beyond me.
But the Inquirer story and the PBS series also reveals something else about Krasner, and it’s a quality with real world ramifications for Philadelphia today and moving forward. In both, we get Krasner, the true believer.
“He wasn’t really trying to prosecute. He was trying to indoctrinate,” Shuaiyb Newton told the Inquirer. Newton was a homicide prosecutor under Krasner who left the office last year after concluding that the DA was more interested in protecting defendants than citizens. “He would hire people that didn’t think anybody belonged in jail at all. Why are you a prosecutor? He hired people who would cry after convicting someone.”
That’s consistent with Krasner’s portrayal in Philly DA, where seemingly all of his waking hours are consumed with how to get folks out of jail. Yes, mass incarceration needs to be reversed; but it needs to be done with deliberate discretion, balanced by a commitment to imprison those who truly are threats to the public peace. But in Philly DA Krasner seems wholly uninterested in actually prosecuting crimes.
Turns out, Krasner is not a reformer so much as a non-prosecutor, as evidenced by his record on diversions, which allow low-level defendants to avoid criminal charges if they follow a prescribed program set out by a prosecutor or judge, diverting them from the criminal justice system. Krasner avails himself of this reformers’ tool significantly less than his predecessor.
There are progressive prosecutors, like Delco’s Jack Stollsteimer, who are reforming the system and lessening the jail population while simultaneously punishing those who resort to violence when breaking the social contract. But Philly DA gives us Krasner, who proclaims so often that only he “speaks the truth” that you start to realize you’re watching a smooth-talking megalomaniac. At one point, Quiñones-Sánchez tries to get him to sit down with some rank and file cops, and he reacts by calling them his “enemies.”
It’s a window into a personality trait straight out of the writings of Eric Hoffer, author of The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. “The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership,” Hoffer writes. “What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.” It’s also, troublingly, a Mick Jagger lyric come to life: Just as every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints.
Philly DA gives us Krasner, who proclaims so often that only he “speaks the truth” that you start to realize you’re watching a smooth-talking megalomaniac. At one point, Quiñones-Sánchez tries to get him to sit down with some rank and file cops, and he reacts by calling them his “enemies.”
But it’s complicated, right? Krasner is right that the police do need to be held to the same standards as you and me. And he ought to be praised for exonerating over 20 unjustly convicted inmates.
But, like any authoritarian leader, he is an unreliable narrator. There is always someone else to blame from Larry Krasner’s point of view. At various times, he’s pointed the finger of blame at the cops, judges, Kenney, Josh Shapiro, and the U.S. attorney’s office.
After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, John F. Kennedy scored major points by taking responsibility: “I’m the responsible officer of the government” he said, even when, history shows, it would have been accurate to blame the CIA for a tragic policy failure. But he didn’t, because he knew how to get things done—and he knew he’d need the CIA in the future. In Philly DA, Krasner self-righteously bemoans “retail politics,” but Quiñones-Sánchez tries to educate him: What he’s resisting, she seems to imply at one point, is success itself. But for Larry Krasner, being in the fight is the success.
And, like any stalwart authoritarian, he is loathe to admit mistakes or change course. Even his “apology” for stunningly denying that we’re in a crisis wasn’t a real apology; he admitted not to being wrong, but to not reading the room. More to the point, time and again, he refuses to concede that his office’s seeming decarcerate-at-all costs ethos—the plea bargains, the slap-on-the-wrist sentencing requests, the motions for low bail, the releasing of defendants on their own recognizance, the failure to prosecute gun cases—can fuel a culture of lawlessness on our streets.
Thomas Mandracchia was one of those bright-eyed Krasner Assistant District Attorney hires out of Penn Law in 2018, and had gone onto private practice in Wilmington, Delaware when I spoke to him in April. “Both progressive and old school prosecutors alike are fed up and miserable in Krasner’s office,” he said. It started with the training in progressive prosecution program new hires were subject to—an innovation the Citizen praised in 2018. It was led by former Boston prosecutor Adam Foss, who has since been the subject of investigations concerning allegations of sexual assault; at least one independent review of his conduct, in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, found that Foss engaged in “troubling” behavior that did not rise to the level of a crime.
In his reckless crusading and his unwillingness to adjust during a time of horrible crisis, Krasner has jeopardized the prospects for the change he claims to champion.
“Rather than a rigorous training program for us new prosecutors, my class’s training was a cross between a graduate seminar and a religious retreat, filled with lectures followed by group reflection circles,” Mandracchia says. “Our bizarre training ended and, as we eventually entered the courtroom, my colleagues and I realized our training was insufficient at best and misleading at worst. Foss had instructed us to do with our cases what we wished, even going so far as suggesting we evade or disregard supervisor oversight. Foss’s suggestion misled some members of my class into believing they had authority to unilaterally withdraw felony charges in their first few weeks in the courtroom. And this poor training was not limited to new hires. Attorneys at all levels complained about lack of training.”
That’s where we’re at; it’s not just that young lawyers like Mandracchia are leaving Krasner in droves, it’s that many are not unlike cult escapees. At one point in Philly DA, Krasner’s apparatchiks are seen gaslighting Lisa Harvey, the longtime head of the DA’s juvenile court unit. You watch the scenes and tell me if Harvey strikes you as a rigid adherent to an outworn ideology, or whether the Krasnerites were doing that thing that all authoritarians do: Projecting.
There have been so many victims of the Krasner experiment that it’s hard to keep them all straight. The guy in Brewerytown who took his dog for a walk and was shot to death in broad daylight by an asshole who’d twice walked out of court, despite a history of robbery, carjacking and assault while in custody comes to mind. But I’ll close with two.
One would be reform itself. In his reckless crusading and his unwillingness to adjust during a time of horrible crisis, Krasner has jeopardized the prospects for the change he claims to champion. Early in his tenure, I wrote that a sea of body bags and chalk outlines was the quickest way to insure that the criminal justice status quo would prevail. In that sense, Krasner’s prosecutorial disinterest is the system’s best friend.
The other victim I haven’t been able to stop thinking about is 7-year-old Zamar Jones, who was shot in his head as he played with a toy on his family’s porch three years ago. He was shot by one Michael Banks, who had had a long, violent record, and had, prior to the shooting, been arrested by police on a felony gun charge. But Krasner gave Banks a plea deal of 3 to 9 months. Banks was back on the street in no time, and, just like that, a little boy playing with a toy was no longer.
To be sure, Larry Krasner isn’t the reason we’re in a murder epidemic, but he sure ain’t helping. Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed, entitled “Larry Krasner’s Christmas,” making our city seem like New York in the 1970s. It’s past time for all our so-called leaders—Kenney, Krasner, Outlaw—to come together, put aside their massive egos, and come up with a plan…together. Since Krasner first took office murder has exploded (a 101 percent increase) and gun convictions have dropped—while gun arrests have gone up. What we’ve been doing for five years now sure ain’t working.
One final point, born out by the Inquirer story and Philly DA. For all of Krasner’s attacks on Donald Trump, there are glaring similarities between the two men: The mismanagement; the inability to work with others; the shoot-from-the-hip drama, and the swallowing up of an agenda by crisis. Murder is Larry Krasner’s pandemic. And like Trump, Krasner’s goal doesn’t seem to be to serve you. Rather, as one former ADA told me, it seems to be to do as he’s always done: “Stick his finger in the eye of the system.”
Congrats, Larry. You’ve succeeded.
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