Working Inside the System: Thoughts About ‘Philly D.A.’

I’ve been watching Philly DA (the PBS documentary series) and loving it for highlighting the intense contradictions of working as a progressive inside the legal system.

The series documents the work of Larry Kramer, who has been Philadelphia’s DA since 2018. Kramer says that he spent his 30-year career as a defense attorney complaining about the criminal legal system and since being elected as Philadelphia’s District Attorney, he now had the power to make changes.

But does he? It is certainly true, as Jonathan Simon has so well explained in Governing Through Crime, the system of mass incarceration made DAs powerful.To lock up the largest proportion of civilians of any country, Congress and state legislators had to strip judges of their traditional prerogatives of discretionary sentencing and had to make it almost impossible for most poor people—disproportionately Black and brown—to have access to a defense lawyer capable of pushing against the plea-bargaining machinery created by DAs to “efficiently process” cases. DAs increasingly had the most discretion—and therefore the most power—to decide who was going to go to jail and for how long. And for decades, DAs ran for re-election by boasting about their 99% conviction rates and throwing red meat at voters by filing outrageous charges and recommending harsh sentencing in ‘hot’ cases that received public attention. Indeed, being a prosecutor became all but a pre-condition for running for all elective offices by the early 2000s.

Larry Krasner is attempting to use the power of the DA office against the system that made it powerful. Unfortunately, Philly DA provides a lot of evidence that the other institutions of the legal machinery of mass incarceration—police, judges, legislators, social workers (Child Protective Services, for example)—have the power to resist his reform efforts. In episode after episode, we see Krasner and his team trying to institute major changes, only to find that by the end of the episode they were only able to win small reforms, and at a high price. In one episode, we see the enormous effort it took to charge a police officer with murder after he shot an unarmed Black man in the back. And then, at the end, we learn that Krasner declined to charge 19 other police officers who had also killed suspects. In another episode we see Krasner working to reduce sentencing recommendations for minors convicted of serious crimes. And he does succeed in convincing a small number of judges to shave off a few years while many other judges reacted with outrage at his efforts. All in all we are left with the sense that Krasner is only able to make marginal changes, and that the machinery of mass incarceration remains largely intact.

Here’s the problem: Krasner’s capacity to make change is not nor can it be based on the power of his office. That power arose because the DA was part of the machinery of mass incarceration. By challenging that system, we see the very limited power Krasner has to effect change. Time and again, Krasner tries to do something big and ends up accomplishing something smaller, and at an enormous cost.

Of course, Krasner’s accomplishments are significant: the Philadelphia Police Department has long been notorious for its racism (remember Frank Rizzo? If not look him up!) and cops now worry that they might be held accountable. Krasner’s push to end of cash bail for many crimes has freed thousands of incarcerated people who had not been convicted of any crime.  A few judges are sentencing people to shorter terms (although all sentencing guidelines in the United States are absurd).  These are real achievements that have helped to blunt the impact of police violence and mass incarceration on Philly’s Black and Latinx communities.

And, in recognition of his progress, Krasner has retained his electoral coalition based in the Black community and progressive whites. In May Krasner easily won the Democratic nomination for a second term, trouncing his ‘law and order’ opponent 65% to 35% and virtually guaranteeing a second term.

But I come away from watching this remarkable documentary wondering if Krasner could do far more had he spent more time working with community organizations to build a permanently mobilized movement against mass incarceration and racist police violence

The series implies that Krasner is uncomfortable with community organizing. In one episode, we see Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez lecturing Krasner about the need to go to a community-police block party in Kessington, a multi-racial working-class neighborhood. When he does go (somewhat reluctantly), he has difficulty connecting with the people in attendance. “Larry’s inability to do retail politics is going to either make him successful or not,” Quinones-Sanchez says in frustration.

Perhaps Krasner is well-connected with Black and brown communities and the problem is that the documentarians didn’t highlight it.

This is the real test for any progressive officeholder: to what extent do they utilize their time and resources working with community-based activists to permanently mobilize large numbers of people in support of radical policies like defunding the police or ending mass incarceration? Obviously, Krasner must devote considerable time and energy to doing the D.A. job. But he must also understand that the power to effect fundamental change does not come from the office he holds, but from the direct power of people demanding these changes.

We know, thanks to the 2020 election results, that there are powerful minority community organizations in Philadelphia capable of real mobilization. The test of Krasner’s strategy will be the extent to which he works with these organizations not just during his re-election campaign, but throughout his term as Philly D.A., and not just to win an election but to build the grassroots movement against police violence and mass incarceration.

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