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Q&A: Drexel’s Anil Kalhan on Philadelphia DA Candidate Larry Krasner

May 22, 2017

Larry Krasner

Civil rights attorney Larry Krasner’s convincing victory in last week’s Democratic primary election for Philadelphia district attorney took many members of the media and the voting public by surprise. Krasner, who has no prosecutorial experience and has a history of taking on the police, won by nearly 18 points in a competitive race and will face Republican nominee Beth Grossman in the November general election.

Krasner intends to “fundamentally change” the culture in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, which he has said prioritizes conviction rates and harsh sentencing over the crime-reduction approaches he plans to take. To find out what his win could mean for the city, DrexelNow caught up with Anil Kalhan, JD, associate professor of law in Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law.

Q: What does Larry Krasner’s victory in the primary election indicate about the direction of criminal justice in the city?

A: The prevailing narrative in the media about Krasner's primary election victory has been somewhat oversimplified and misleading. There's no question that Philadelphia's primary election voters signaled a desire to move away from the "tough on crime" excesses of the past few decades. But the campaign was already trending in the direction of progressive reform even before Krasner announced he was running — he was one of the very last candidates to enter the race, and to a considerable extent the other candidates held the same positions on those substantive issues as he did.

What made Krasner stand out from this crowded field of primary opponents with similar platforms was not so much his substantive positions on any of those issues, but his rhetorical positioning of himself as a complete outsider to the District Attorney's Office. At times he seemed to be campaigning against the very office he was seeking to lead — and doing so to a greater extent than he even was campaigning against any of his individual opponents. That positioning helped him garner the support of local and national progressive groups, which in turn helped him attract lots of local and national media attention and a large infusion of independent campaign expenditures toward the end of the campaign. Especially in a very low-turnout election, all of that contributed greatly to boosting his name recognition over his opponents' as election day approached. Since Philadelphia is a largely Democratic city, Krasner has to be understood as the presumptive favorite to win the general election, but it does remain to be seen how that kind of campaign will fare in a general election race with only two major candidates.

Q: Krasner’s platform was built on advocacy for a number of specific reforms to the criminal justice system, including the end of the death penalty, cash bail, civil forfeiture and stop-and-frisk, as well as treating addiction as a medical problem rather than a criminal one. If he goes on to win November’s general election, how much power would he have as district attorney to implement these changes?

A: The district attorney plays an important role in all of those matters, although none of these reforms are matters that the district attorney can implement entirely on his or her own. If Krasner wins the general election, a key question therefore will be whether other actors in the criminal justice system, including judges and the police, will successfully be pushed to move in similar reform-minded directions. Krasner's professional background and his rhetoric during the campaign could cause him to face headwinds on his reform agenda from some of those actors, and even from within the District Attorney's Office itself.

On the other hand, if he approaches the task of leading the office carefully and skillfully, he may be able to overcome any wariness that some career prosecutors and others might have, and having effectively energized progressive groups in support of his campaign, he could be well positioned to use the District Attorney's Office as a bully pulpit to draw public attention to the need for other actors in the criminal justice system more generally to embrace reform.

Q: The race in Philadelphia came in the early days of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ tough-on-crime administration that some have said will resume the war on drugs. Does it tell us anything about how big cities may push back over the next four years?

A: The widespread embrace of criminal justice reform by the candidates to become Philadelphia's next district attorney emerges from a broader national trend toward support for criminal justice reform at the state and local level in recent years, often on a bipartisan basis. In Philadelphia, for example, officials have undertaken reforms that already have led to some reductions in the number of police stops and shootings, and that have reduced the city's prison population by 12 percent. To some extent, those kinds of reform efforts have lagged behind at the federal level, and under the Trump administration they may grind to a halt altogether or even move in the opposite direction. But only a small fraction of criminal prosecutions in the United States are by the federal government, and less than 10 percent of individuals in prison in the United States are held in federal custody. While the federal government can influence what happens in state and local criminal justice systems, its ability to do so remains indirect and limited. The broad support for reform among the candidates to be Philadelphia's next district attorney shows that even in the era of Trump and Sessions, there may continue to be avenues to pursue meaningful criminal justice reform at the state and local levels.