The End of Mass Incarceration: A Blueprint for Transformative Change

By Rasheed Stewart
Associate Editor, Vol. 23

He sued the Philadelphia Police Department over 75 times.[1]  As a career civil rights and criminal defense attorney he routinely represented individuals subjected to the oppressive forces of racism pervading law enforcement and the criminal justice system.[2] His nationally acclaimed representation of arrested protestors involved with the “Black Lives Matter” movement solidified his reputation among black and brown people as an authentic, hard-nosed movement lawyer.[3]  And now, as Philadelphia’s District Attorney, Larry Krasner has managed to put forth a radical, yet replicable platform for ending mass incarceration.

Within three months, Krasner has issued several of the most transformative policies that any prosecutor in U.S. history has dared to even imagine.  Rather unsurprisingly, Krasner’s new policies have quickly managed to enrage union leaders of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police,[4] while simultaneously galvanizing influential civil rights activists like Shaun King, in supporting his vision for systemic change.[5]  To demonstrate his unrelenting approach to transformative change, Krasner has hit the ground running with a flurry of noteworthy edicts.  First, to “broadly reorganize the office’s structure and implement cultural change,” Krasner dismissed 31 members of the office just three days into office, including trial attorneys and several supervisor level staff members.[6]  Second, in responding to a judge’s order, Krasner publicly released a secret list of current and former police officers whom prosecutors have sought to keep off the witness stand after a review determined they had a long history of lying, racial bias, or brutality.[7]  Moreover, Krasner’s ‘Do Not Call’ list now legitimately sends the foreboding message that cronyism between police officers and ADA’s have no place in an ethically transformed criminal justice system.

While dismissing ineffective ADA’s and publicly revealing the names of criminal police officers are a great start to change, these initiatives are merely an appetizer to the significantly disruptive ‘main course’ put forth next.  About two weeks ago, Krasner issued a memo to every Assistant District Attorney within the Philadelphia office.  The chief objective of this memo is simple: end mass incarceration and reduce the costs associated with mass incarceration through lower sentencing.  Some of the most notable directives are as follows: (1) do not charge possession of marijuana (cannabis) regardless of weight;[8] (2) do not charge prostitution cases against sex workers where a person who has been arrested has two, one or no prostitution convictions;[9] (3) make plea offers below the bottom end of the mitigated range of the PA Sentencing Guidelines;[10] (4) all ADA’s must “state on the record the benefits and costs of the sentence recommendation they seek.”  Further, ADAs must state the financial burden (approximately $42,000.00 per year to incarcerate on person or $115.00 per day) and stress in their recommendation to the court, that the unnecessary costs equals that of one year’s salary for a beginning teacher, police officer, fire fighter, social worker, Assistant District Attorney, or an addiction counselor.[11]

Through these new policies, Larry Krasner seeks to overhaul traditional practices of prosecutorial discretion.  By not charging individuals for marijuana possession, or by requiring the lowest pleas possible to be offered under the mitigated range of the PA Sentencing Guidelines, prosecutors are effectively using their discretion to alleviate an already overworked, and overpriced, criminal justice system from incarcerating black and brown bodies for actions that are not violent, nor particularly harmful to society.  Furthermore, by directing ADA’s to emphasize the incurring $42,000.00 costs to Philadelphia taxpayers at the sentencing phase, Krasner demonstrates just how uneconomical it is to incarcerate thousands of individuals every year.  Rather powerfully, not only does this memo implore prosecutors to use their discretion in an effective, novel way, it also establishes expectations of change that individuals in Philadelphia can then hold accountable their own publicly elected district attorney.

Evaluating one of the most radical policy initiatives in criminal justice reform begs the question, should civil rights advocates pursue public office as District Attorneys?  With the blueprint for changing the criminal justice system illustrated by Larry Krasner’s campaign, and in analyzing the first few months in office, the answer seems quite clear.  Time will dictate whether this blueprint deserves to be followed.  For now, the nation looks on as Philadelphia leads the long overdue transformative efforts in ending mass incarceration.


[1] Alan Feuer, He Sued Police 75 Times.  Democrats Want Him as Philadelphia’s Top Prosecutor, NY Times (June 17, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/17/us/philadelphia-krasner-district-attorney-police.html.

[2] Id.

[3] Peter Moskowitz, Can This BLM-Friendly, George Soros Backed, Dark Horse Lawyer Transform the Justice System?, Splinter News (May 10, 2017), https://splinternews.com/can-this-blm-friendly-george-soros-backed-dark-horse-1795090728

[4] Joe Trinacria, Philly FOP President Blasts DA Krasner in Letter to Police Cadets, Philly Magazine (March 2, 2018), https://www.phillymag.com/news/2018/03/02/mcnesby-krasner-police-cadets/

[5] Shaun King, Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner Promised a Criminal Justice Revolution.  He’s Exceeding Expectations. The Intercept (March 20, 2018), https://theintercept.com/2018/03/20/larry-krasner-philadelphia-da/

[6]Chris Palmer, Julie Shaw & Mensah M. Dean, Krasner dismisses 31 from Philly DA’s Office in dramatic shakeup, The Inquirer (January 5, 2018), http://www.philly.com/philly/news/crime/larry-krasner-philly-da-firing-prosecutors-20180105.html

[7] Mark Fazlollah, Craig R. McCoy & Julie Shaw, Under court order, District Attorney Krasner releases list of tainted police, The Inquirer (March 6, 2018),  http://www.philly.com/philly/news/larry-krasner-philadelphia-police-tainted-misconduct-secret-list-20180306.html

[8] https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/4415817-Philadelphia-DA-Larry-Krasner-s-Revolutionary-Memo.html

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

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