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Philly District Attorney Larry Krasner Earns Praise And Pushback For Changes Made


Some of the nation's most ambitious changes to criminal justice are happening in Philadelphia. That's where Larry Krasner is finishing his first year as district attorney. He's fighting mass incarceration and pushing to charge fewer people with crimes, but Krasner's efforts are getting resistance from police officers, victim advocates and the system itself. Bobby Allyn of member station WHYY has more.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Walk into Krasner's 18th-floor office in Center City, Philadelphia, and it won't feel like you're visiting a DA. Behind a large blue couch are mugshots of civil rights icons Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. One year in, Krasner sees himself as leading his own movement against mass incarceration.

LARRY KRASNER: Going from 6,500 people in county jail to 4,700, that's pretty good.

ALLYN: Krasner did this by not charging for marijuana possession and going easy on shoplifters and sex workers. He also started to release more people without bail despite critics saying those defendants might commit new crimes and maybe wouldn't make it to their next court appearance.

KRASNER: All of our metrics at this point indicate it caused no uptick in crime, and it caused no significant increase in people failing to show up.

ALLYN: Krasner is a former civil rights lawyer who sued the police 75 times before leading one of the busiest DA offices in the country. He's part of a trend of reform prosecutors from Boston to San Francisco who have won office on promises of creating more balance in local criminal justice systems.

Krasner is seen as the boldest example of this new class of progressive prosecutors, and so many eyes are on him to see how he weathers a wave of opposition, including from police, who usually work closely with prosecutors.


JOHN MCNESBY: He's turned the district attorney's office into the defender association.

ALLYN: That's John McNesby, who leads the largest Philadelphia police union, speaking about Krasner on Fox News. The families of crime victims are also criticizing Krasner. Take Ace King.

ACE KING: I cannot understate what this individual and his movement has done to our family and other families. It's unreal.

ALLYN: King says he was blindsided when he found out one of the five defendants convicted of killing his father 20 years ago was about to be released early because of new federal sentencing guidelines. Throughout the process, King says Krasner seemed more focused on the offender than listening to the victim's family and keeping them informed.

KING: We are just saying keep the victim's families in the loop, and have their voices heard. And that's not happening.

ALLYN: In another case, a judge appointed a special prosecutor after one of Krasner's assistants was found to be too lenient. And federal prosecutors are planning to intervene in a case where Krasner's office extended a plea deal to a man who shot a deli owner with an AK-47. Under Krasner's deal that dropped the most serious charges, the shooter would be eligible for release after about three years. It was an unusually light punishment. David Sklansky teaches law at Stanford University.

DAVID SKLANSKY: It's not surprising that some people who operate in the system are going to push back against him and think that he's doing the wrong thing.

ALLYN: Jondhi Harrell says Krasner is doing the right thing. Harrell, a one-time inmate himself, now helps the formerly incarcerated transition back into society. He says Krasner is looking for past prosecutor mistakes more than his predecessors, and that's giving hope to prisoners who are appealing their cases.

JONDHI HARRELL: They're looking at - now I have a chance. Now I have people who are in the DA's office who are actually looking for justice, and that's never been.

ALLYN: Rocking the system will become less popular, experts say, if Krasner can't find the support of crime victims and police officers throughout the city. For NPR News, I'm Bobby Allyn in Philadelphia.

SHAPIRO: And this story comes from Keystone Crossroads, a statewide public media initiative reporting on cities across Pennsylvania.

(SOUNDBITE OF DELIA GONZALEZ'S "ROULETTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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