Once tough-on-crime prosecutors now push progressive reforms

By Del Quentin Wilber, Los Angeles Times

Philadelphia Dist. Atty. Larry Krasner, center, a barb-throwing progressive, is leading the charge to change decades-old criminal justice policies.     (Del Quentin Wilber / Los Angeles Times)

Philadelphia Dist. Atty. Larry Krasner, center, a barb-throwing progressive, is leading the charge to change decades-old criminal justice policies. (Del Quentin Wilber / Los Angeles Times)

District attorneys used to brag about how many criminals they threw behind bars. Now an increasing number boast of how many they kept out of prison.

A wave of progressive prosecutors has won elections in big cities and suburbs, and it is challenging long-held law-and-order conventions. Sounding more like liberal activists and civil rights lawyers than traditional hard-nosed DAs, the prosecutors are seeking to transform criminal justice systems.

Progressive prosecutors have been elected in often-contentious contests in Philadelphia and in Houston, Chicago, Tampa, Boston and Durham, N.C., among other places. In June, progressives took down incumbents in two populous counties in Washington’s northern Virginia suburbs.

Los Angeles voters could weigh in next year if the progressive district attorney of San Francisco, George Gascon, a former assistant chief of the LAPD, decides to challenge incumbent Jackie Lacey.

The new-style prosecutors are seeking to end mass incarceration, eliminate cash bail, divert more defendants into drug treatment programs, eradicate the death penalty and reverse wrongful convictions. Their advocacy has intensified a national debate over criminal justice reform, which has moved into the heart of the presidential primaries.

They say they have no choice: For too long, they say, a deeply flawed system has harmed too many people.

“The old policies don’t just break individuals, many of whom did not need to be broken, they break communities and they break cities for a whole host of economic and social reasons,” said Larry Krasner, who won election in 2017 to become district attorney of this city of 1.6 million residents and has become one of the best known of the new wave of prosecutors.

“Being tough-on-crime has been a wrecking ball to cities.”

Their critics, who include many police chiefs, police unions, conservative legislators, judges and the Trump administration contend the new policies will lead to more crime after years of improvements.

“Philadelphia doesn’t have a prosecutor,” says U.S. Atty. William McSwain, the top federal law enforcement official in the city and a leading adversary of Krasner’s.

“The city has a public defender with power.”

McSwain pointed to police statistics that showed homicides up 8% and shootings up 7% during Krasner’s first 18 months in office. Meanwhile, Krasner’s supporters point to statistics that show overall violent crime is down 7% during that same period .

Legal and political observers say the trend toward liberal prosecutors has been years in the making, especially in big cities and suburbs that have diverse and liberal electorates. Prosecutors are among the system’s most powerful players, and criminal justice reform advocates have been encouraging progressive candidates to enter races that have historically not drawn a challenger.

“This is a real movement that could have real consequences, and this new crop of progressive prosecutors are looking at the job in a very different way,” said Angela J. Davis, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C., who has written about the trend. “Historically prosecutors are largely responsible for a lot of the problems we have in the criminal justice system,” she said. “They also have the power to correct them.”

Kim Foxx , who was elected in 2016 to be the state’s attorney for Cook County, which includes Chicago, says she has worked hard to reduce the number of low-level, nonviolent offenders held on cash bail or sent to prison. Her policies, she says, have helped reduce by about 4,000 the total number of people incarcerated and held in jail pending trials.

Overall crime has declined, with homicides down 11% so far this year and nearly 30% compared with the same period in 2016.

“The people we are diverting from jail aren’t the people who keep you up at night,” said Foxx, who has dealt with some controversies, including how her office handledthe prosecution of actor Jussie Smollett on charges he lied to police about being beaten in a hate crime. “They are involved in retail theft and drugs. By diverting those offenders, we can focus more attention on violent crime.”

At the vanguard of the progressive DA movement is Krasner, a trim, gray-haired 58-year-old former defense lawyer with no prosecutorial experience prior to his election. Brusque and unapologetic, Krasner shocked the city’s political establishment when he won the Democratic primary in 2017 and has gained national attention both for his policies and his blunt rhetoric and outspoken advocacy.

In interviews, he called McSwain, the U.S. attorney, a “liar,” and former prosecutors in his office “war criminals.” He accused the state’s Democratic attorney general of being “fork tongued” and Republicans in the state legislature of being members of a “right-wing hootenanny.” He even waded into national politics, urging liberal activists not to back former Vice President Joe Biden, whom he considers too moderate.

“Just say no to Joe,” he said, dismissively.

Krasner has also openly clashed with the police union, saying its leadership is seeking to stymie his reform efforts.

“The culture that came out of Frank Rizzo was racist, brutal, toxic, tribal, and that long shadow still hangs over the department especially at the senior and supervisory levels,” he said, referring to a former police commissioner turned mayor in the 1970s.

The president of the local police union declined to comment through spokespeople.

Like many progressive prosecutors, Krasner beefed up a unit to reverse wrongful convictions. In the last 18 months, prosecutors say, it has exonerated nine individuals, all convicted of homicide.

Krasner is racing to diversify the ranks of the 300 lawyers in his office, launching a nationwide recruitment campaign.

Read full article

Olivia McDowellComment