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6 months in, Philly DA Larry Krasner cementing national stature among reform advocates

Krasner has become something of a national darling among reform-oriented activists across the country.

During his first six months in office, Philadelphia Larry Krasner has appeared on a panel with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (top), spoken an MSNBC town hall (bottom left) and been trailed at times by a documentary crew (bottom right). His bold actions have earned him praise from some liberal reform advocates across the country.
During his first six months in office, Philadelphia Larry Krasner has appeared on a panel with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (top), spoken an MSNBC town hall (bottom left) and been trailed at times by a documentary crew (bottom right). His bold actions have earned him praise from some liberal reform advocates across the country. Read moreDAVID SWANSON AND TOM GRALISH / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHERS

In promoting Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner's speaking engagement at Harvard Law School in March, several advocacy groups described him as "the most progressive DA in the country."

A candidate for district attorney in Durham, N.C., said Krasner inspired her run for office, and admitted to nearly plagiarizing language from his campaign website.

And last month, supporters in states including OhioTexas, and California — many aligned with a super PAC that holds Krasner as a role model — dropped off copies of his signature policy document to their local prosecutors' offices.

Six months into his first term, Krasner has made waves locally by dismissing and shaking up staff, enacting bold new policies, and making headline-grabbing decisions in several high-profile cases.

But Krasner's actions — which have not passed without controversy — also have resonated beyond city lines, winning admiration from far-flung criminal justice reform advocates, some of whom cite Philadelphia as an example for how to scale back, or even reverse, the tough-on-crime policies of recent decades.

"What Philadelphia has done is [start] to make the country aware of what solutions might look like in practice," said Becky Bond, cofounder of the Real Justice PAC, which backs change-oriented prosecutorial candidates.

Krasner is not the only participant in Philadelphia's reform efforts. A MacArthur Foundation grant awarded to the city two years ago to decrease its jail population has led to a 36 percent reduction since July 2015, according to city statistics. Julie Wertheimer, senior director of the city's criminal justice reform efforts, credited "all the system actors working together" for those results, including the court system, the Defender Association, and the Police Department, which have participated in implementing programs aimed at diverting people from jail or the criminal justice system.

Krasner is also just one of several prosecutors across the country promising reform. Some peers, including those in Houston, Chicago, and Orlando, Fla., also received a campaign boost from political organizations tied to billionaire George Soros, whose super PAC contributed $1.5 million to Krasner's candidacy in 2017.

Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a nationwide advocacy group, said: "What's happening in Philadelphia is reflective of a broader national change."

And Krasner rejects the notion that he is a poster child for such a shift.

"I see this as a movement that is fundamentally grassroots," he said in an interview Tuesday. "I don't really consider myself a role model for much of anything."

But the former career defense attorney holds a special place in the eyes of many left-leaning admirers. Last month he recorded a podcast with former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who said Philadelphia was part of a nationwide push "to bring about significant reform of our system." Krasner later appeared on an MSNBC town hall, the publication Slate described him as "the real deal," and the Intercept characterized him as a "transformational" leader.

"He stands out because he's just doing more than the other folks have so far," said Rebecca Bernhardt, a policy analyst in Austin, Texas, who delivered Krasner's main policy memo to her local prosecutor's office last month.

"Everybody's just like, 'Wow.' Every week it's just like, 'Wow,' " said Bond, of the Real Justice PAC. "The country is really watching."

A Krasner-inspired candidate — in N.C.

One of those watching was Satana Deberry.

A North Carolina lawyer with only brief experience in criminal law, Deberry was executive director of an affordable-housing organization when she decided last year to run for district attorney in Durham County.

In an interview last week, she said that although she had not met Krasner beforehand, he was "a big part of inspiring my decision to run," due in part to his campaign habit of criticizing the very office he was seeking to lead.

"It showed to me that you didn't have to have a history of a prosecutor to run," Deberry said. "In fact, that you could kind of be critical of prosecutorial practices and win."

Krasner has maintained some of his critical nature while in office, saying previous administrations had turned the office into "a Grade-B District Attorney's Office" and seemed to live in the "land before time." A legal motion filed by his office also included extraordinary language critical of previous prosecutors.

Richard Sax, one of those former prosecutors, has been among Krasner's most vocal critics, and he said last week that his impression from former colleagues is that office morale has "never been worse." Two anonymous Twitter users — whose account names are a spoof of office spokesman Ben Waxman — have frequently criticized Krasner's rhetoric and actions, seeming to channel the frustration of some staffers who privately question the office's direction.

Since January, 65 prosecutors have resigned, retired, or been dismissed, according to Waxman — about 20 percent of the office's lawyers. But Waxman said 29 new prosecutors have been hired and an additional 33 have accepted offers to begin in the next several months.

Krasner said he believes office morale is good and "about to get better" due to "an adjustment in compensation" to be announced to prosecutors next week. He also said that he accepts some criticism "as being the honest opinions of good people," but that other critiques have come from "certain individuals whose fingerprints are all over outrageous misconduct while they were in a position to carry it out."

"There are times when people know that their actions and their conduct is going to come under scrutiny … and they figure the best way to defend that is by attacking the source of what's about to come out," Krasner said.

Sax said his criticisms predated Krasner's primary victory last year — well before Sax might have tried to kick up dust to preemptively defend his reputation. Krasner, he said, appeared to prefer maligning his critics instead of honestly grappling with their critiques.

In North Carolina, Deberry's candidacy hit a speed bump in March, when she was accused of plagiarizing pieces of Krasner's campaign website. She has since added language to the site crediting Krasner for inspiration, and said last week that she regularly credits Krasner in speeches with influencing some of her core positions.

"I'm a bit of a policy nerd, and so for me, somebody like him who has good policy and stuff that looks operational, that's going to be the kind of stuff I'm really attracted to," Deberry said.

Last month, Deberry won the Democratic primary in a race with no Republican candidate, all but ensuring that she will become Durham County's district attorney in January. She has since met Krasner in person, and said he advised her to "hit the ground running."

Memo delivery

Few of Krasner's initiatives this year seemed to generate as much excitement in criminal justice circles as his unveiling of a policy instructing prosecutors to seek shorter sentences and take into account the cost of keeping someone incarcerated, among other guidelines.

Last month, reform advocates in 33 counties spanning 21 states delivered the memo to local prosecutors' offices as part of an effort led by Real Justice PAC, said Bond, the group's executive director.

Clark Slagle, 53, a psychologist in Chapel Hill, N.C., was one of them. He said it was hard to believe that other prosecutors had not previously spelled out similar goals in writing.

"If you think about the justice system as being just, these guidelines are just kind of the basics of how to have justice within our system," said Slagle.

Bernhardt, the Texas policy analyst, said the memo "really looked like it would make a difference in terms of how many people are going to prison and jail."

Slagle said his local district attorney, Jim Woodall, has agreed to meet with activists to discuss the issues in the memo, something Slagle hopes may be the start of helping Krasner's impact spread even more.

"Change happens with relationships and, if [Woodall] doesn't know anything about Larry Krasner and the memo, he's going to learn about that," Slagle said.

Krasner said other prosecutors around the country have told him that the first year is often the most difficult, in part because other participants in the criminal justice system pushed back against attempted reforms. But Krasner said he intends to keep up the fight.

"It really is a movement that got sworn in in Philadelphia," Krasner said. "And it really is a movement around the country that is doing what it can to change America's approach to criminal justice."