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Larry Krasner’s first year as Philly DA: Staff turnover, fewer cases, plenty of controversy

In public remarks, policy changes, and staffing decisions, Krasner, who campaigned on a pledge to curb mass incarceration, has sought in real-time to remake the culture of his agency — if not the system at large. But his first year has not been without controversy and pushback.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner speaks with members of the media during a news conference in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner speaks with members of the media during a news conference in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)Read moreAP

A defense attorney in a murder case last year uncovered incriminating information against the detectives involved, so he called the District Attorney’s Office and tried to make a deal for his client. For years, that’s how negotiations have played out in Philadelphia’s criminal justice system.

But instead of continuing discussions, District Attorney Larry Krasner filed a motion asking a judge to disqualify the attorney, accusing him of trying to conceal alleged illegal conduct by the officers because his firm often represents police — and suggesting the detectives might face perjury charges.

The DA has not spoken publicly about the case, but the actions he approved made for another stark reminder of what has become a staple during his first year in office: a willingness to challenge even well-established conventions.

In public remarks, policy changes, and staffing decisions, Krasner, who campaigned on a pledge to curb mass incarceration, has sought to remake the culture of his agency, if not the system at large. He has personally led a national recruiting effort and turned over almost 30 percent of the office’s staff, while unveiling directives that rethink charging decisions, bail requests, and sentencing recommendations.

Together the steps taken by him and his 550 or so staffers have the potential to impact thousands of defendants, victims, advocates, and criminal justice employees across and beyond Philadelphia.

Consider one measure: City prosecutors last year opened 6,500 fewer cases than the previous year, and half as many as the 73,000 the office filed in 2013, according to data it collected.

The changes have thrilled supporters, such as Kris Henderson, executive director of the Amistad Law Project, a West Philadelphia public interest law center that focuses on issues including sentencing reform and prison abolition. “We feel really positively about Mr. Krasner’s first year,” Henderson said last week. “Even just the re-haul of the attitude of the office.”

Still, Krasner’s inaugural year has not passed without dispute.

A few judges have clashed with his office, rejecting plea offers or, in one extreme example, appointing a defense attorney as a special prosecutor. A Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice also said his office’s bid to throw out a convicted killer’s death sentence had “no support in the law.”

Victims and their relatives have complained about his office resolving cases without notifying them, sometimes in a violation of state law. The head of the police union has said Krasner is seeking to “destroy criminal justice.” And other top prosecutors — including the region’s U.S. attorney and Chester County’s DA — have offered remarkable castigations of the policy decisions by a man considered their peer.

Krasner declined an interview request to discuss his first year. After a news conference last month, he said that his office accomplished much in 2018, and that despite an uptick in city homicides and shootings, overall violent crime was down even as more people were being let out of city jails.

“We have challenges ahead, there’s no question about that, and we take them very seriously,” Krasner said. “But what we are seeing in general is that modern policies do not do what our detractors claim: They do not cause crime.”

‘Devastating’ turnover or a ‘stampede’ to join?

Some critics caution against offering a comprehensive judgment of Krasner’s impact after just 12 months in office. But his mark can be seen in areas such as staff turnover.

Krasner capped his first full week in office by forcing 31 prosecutors to resign. The exodus has since continued.

According to office spokesperson Ben Waxman, 139 employees left in 2018, including 104 assistant district attorneys, while 155 people were hired, including 89 assistant district attorneys. New hires are about 28 percent of the staff.

Krasner’s critics say turnover has damaged the office’s institutional knowledge and professionalism, created confusion, and left inexperienced attorneys with few places to turn for help when they face challenges.

Richard Sax, a vocal Krasner detractor who retired in 2017 after nearly four decades in the office, pointed to the near-total overhaul of the homicide unit, where he used to work. About two dozen prosecutors, including many veterans, worked there in 2017. Almost every one resigned, was transferred, or forced out last year, and Sax said many of their replacements have limited trial experience.

“It will take 10 to 20 years to rebuild that office into the strong prosecutor’s office that it always was," Sax said. “The effects are devastating.”

In an interview last week, Lynne Abraham, Philadelphia DA from 1991 to 2010, knocked Krasner for his January purge, which occurred on a snow day, saying his actions were “gutless” and detrimental to morale. She also said turnover during her tenure was closer to 8 to 10 percent per year.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who was Philadelphia DA from 1978 to 1986, said Krasner’s turnover level seemed “a little higher than most [years], but not shockingly high.”

Waxman rejected the notion that turnover had hurt the office, saying many skilled staffers have stayed on, and adding: “We have a stampede of talent coming to this office right now.”

Krasner visited 25 law schools to recruit last year, his office said, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford — his alma mater — and every historically black law school. At the University of Southern California, he targeted students considering becoming public defenders — his first job out of law school — saying they were “probably the right kind of people” for “a truly progressive prosecutor’s office,” according to a video posted online.

“You have a chance to be in at the beginning of what I view as a 30-year arc of turning around the biggest civil rights issue of our time,” Krasner told prospective hires. “If you have the option to be a part of history as opposed to reading about it, misreported, then you should do it.”

‘A transformational leader’

In February, Krasner received national kudos for a policy memo that called for prosecutors to request shorter prison sentences upon conviction, limit the length of supervised release, and decline to prosecute some people suspected of prostitution or possessing marijuana.

He also instructed his office to stop seeking cash bail for certain low-level offenses, including driving under the influence, resisting arrest, and some burglaries.

Commentator Shaun King, writing for the Intercept in March, called Krasner “a transformational leader” who was “showing the nation how to dismantle mass incarceration from the inside out.”

Court officials say that detailed year-end data about prosecutions and their resolutions would not be available for at least several weeks. Some of Krasner’s initiatives also were not implemented until months after he was sworn in.

Still, the data supplied by Krasner’s office showed double-digit declines in felony, misdemeanor, and summary cases opened last year. The number of new misdemeanor cases alone dropped 25 percent from 2017.

That downward trend, however, has been occurring since 2014, the data show, and the largest overall drop came in 2016, when the city agreed before the Democratic National Convention to decriminalize some nuisance offenses. Summary offenses that year dropped nearly in half.

Criminal-justice reform efforts also cannot be limited to Krasner’s office. Eighteen months before he was elected, a MacArthur Foundation grant brought together agencies including the DA’s Office, Police Department, First Judicial District, Defender Association, and Office of Criminal Justice to design programs that would reduce the number of people in city jails. As of last week, the inmate population had declined by 43 percent since July 2015 — a drop that enabled the city to stop housing offenders at one jail.

Chief Defender Keir Bradford Grey said collaboration has been key, and she’s been proud to witness and play a role in the reforms. With Krasner, she said, there is “a lot of commonality with the approach and understanding of what our system should be.”

Pushback from the system

An undeniable aspect of Krasner’s first year has been that some of his decisions have generated controversy or pushback.

In June, he fulfilled a campaign promise to not seek capital punishment by allowing the killers of Philadelphia Sgt. Robert Wilson III — shot during a 2015 robbery at a video game store — to plead guilty and receive a life sentence. The decision outraged Wilson’s mother and sister, and sparked an extraordinary war of words between Krasner and the police union.

Krasner has acknowledged the ride has at times been bumpy. In a July interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Krasner compared himself to a pirate who had taken over a ship, saying: “It’s not easy to take an office that for decades has hired its own and fired people who felt differently. It’s a real process to take those people and redirect them."

He also told Hayes that friction in early months had come from “many sources,” including the Inquirer, which he said had “clobbered” his office in its coverage. It was not Krasner’s only complaint about the media during the year — even though he frequently interacted with the press, hosting regular news conferences, granting interviews to a variety of local and national publications, and allowing a documentary film crew to follow him.

The judiciary at times frustrated Krasner’s efforts as well.

In April, his office filed a motion saying convicted killer Lavar Brown should leave death row and be resentenced to life without parole. The motion did not identify factual errors in Brown’s case, but cited “prosecutorial discretion" as the reason for the change of heart, and said the courts should not “second-guess” the new agreement between the DA’s Office and the man it sought to have executed in 2005.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed.

In October, Justice Christine Donohue wrote in a majority opinion that a jury had approved the death penalty, and the DA’s Office couldn’t change that result “based upon the differing views of the current office holder.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Kevin Dougherty, formerly a Philadelphia judge, called the assertion by Krasner’s office “a remarkable proposition, and one that finds no support in the law.”

Krasner has repeatedly said that he views himself as part of a criminal-justice reform movement sweeping across the nation. And there is evidence he may be right: Last week, reform-oriented prosecutors took office in at least eight jurisdictions, including Boston, Dallas, and southern Virginia. The new St. Louis prosecutor forced several staffers to resign on his first day, including one who failed to indict a Ferguson police officer for fatally shooting Michael Brown in 2014, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

It is not immediately clear what new policies or developments Krasner may seek to pursue next, but he has several major issues on his plate — including, for the first time in nearly two decades, prosecuting an ex-cop for an on-duty shooting, and seeking new sentences for more juvenile lifers serving unconstitutional sentences.

In a video posted Wednesday on his office’s Instagram account, Krasner quickly highlighted a few initiatives from 2018 before saying: “We are moving forward.”

Then he turned away from the camera and walked back to work.