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Can the Criminal Justice System Be Reformed? PBS Series “Philly D.A.” Follows Larry Krasner’s Efforts

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Image Credit: Ryan Collerd

Four years ago, the longtime civil rights attorney Larry Krasner shocked the political establishment in Philadelphia by being elected district attorney. Now he faces a tough reelection next week. We delve into his record as captured in a new eight-part series by PBS “Independent Lens” that follows how Krasner, who had sued the Philadelphia Police Department 75 times during his career, ran on a platform of ending mass incarceration and has fought to overhaul the DA’s Office. “Is change possible in an institution like this?” asks series co-creator Ted Passon. “Why or why not?” We also speak with co-creator Nicole Salazar about how the series explores “the tensions between the new guard, between Krasner’s team and the existing prosecutors in the office.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Four years ago, the longtime civil rights attorney Larry Krasner shocked the political establishment in Philadelphia by being elected district attorney. Krasner, who had sued the Philadelphia Police Department 75 times during his career, was suddenly the city’s top prosecutor, after running on a platform vowing to end mass incarceration. Larry Krasner is now up for reelection and is facing a former prosecutor — who he fired — in next week’s Democratic primary.

Krasner’s unexpected 2017 victory and his effort to overhaul the DA’s Office is the focus of a new eight-part series on the PBS program Independent Lens. This is the trailer for the series.

LARRY KRASNER: I rejected a long time ago that the only purpose of the criminal justice system is to punish.

REPORTER: Voters in Philadelphia have chosen a progressive as their new district attorney.

REPORTER: The most stunning upset.

REPORTER: Is sending political shock waves across the country.

LARRY KRASNER: I am a career civil rights lawyer, the only attorney in the history of this city to overturn 800 convictions by corrupt police officers.

REPORTER: Krasner is a hero to some and a bum to others.

JOHN McNESBY: He’s never been pro-law enforcement.

LARRY KRASNER: If things aren’t working from the inside, we need to bring someone from the outside.

REPORTER: What do you think he’s trying to accomplish?


LARRY KRASNER: At this point, there are more people of color in prison or on parole than in slavery at the end of the Civil War.

MIKE LEE: Larry is bringing in criminologists, activists.

BEN WAXMAN: Everything we do, steady fire, heavy resistance. This will be controversial.

ROBERT LISTENBEE: Policies that focus on rehabilitation and second chances as opposed to punishment.

LISA HARVEY: We’re in Philadelphia. There’s murders and robberies. Community services may be not appropriate.

LARRY KRASNER: This DA’s Office has been too close and too cozy with the Fraternal Order of Police.

MARTY MOSS-COANE: How corrupt do you think the city is?

LARRY KRASNER: Anybody who’s dealt with this office knows there are secrets. We need to find out where the secrets are.

ANDREW WELLBROCK: You’ve got to be kidding me.


ANDREW WELLBROCK: Files about police officers.

LARRY KRASNER: There has not been prosecution of police misconduct by this DA’s Office for 30 years.

REPORTER: Right now Philly police officers think the scales are suddenly weighed down in favor of criminals.

CHRIS NORRIS: If you’re too corrupt to testify in court, you’re too corrupt to patrol the streets.

REPORTER: Who was DA when there were dozens of people shot over the weekend?


PROTESTER: We’re tired! And we want our neighborhood back!

LARRY KRASNER: When you try to make the right decisions, I’ll live with the rest.

LATONYA MYERS: That is a meaningless, endless cycle, a cycle of trauma, a cycle of pain. Some of the effects can be irreversible.

JUDGE SCOTT DiCLAUDIO: There’s no mass incarceration. That’s utterly ridiculous.

POLICE OFFICER: Not one cop is going to tell you that he’s on our team.

LARRY KRASNER: I suggest you don’t shoot unarmed people in the back.

BETH GROSSMAN: The DA’s Office is not a place a social experiment should be conducted.

LISA HARVEY: You don’t have to destroy the system to get the results you want.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for the new eight-part Independent Lens series Philly D.A. The series was created by Ted Passon, Yoni Brook and Nicole Salazar. Ted and Nicole join us now.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. This is an astounding eight-part series. Ted, can you talk about why you decided to take on this project?

TED PASSON: Sure. Thanks again for having us.

Yeah, I had been interested in criminal justice issues for a long time. Different members of my family have been locked up at different times, and so it was something I was always interested in looking at.

I had heard Larry Krasner’s name for many years. He had represented a lot of friends of mine who are activists, but I had never met him. And one day a friend called and was like, “Hey, you know that guy Larry Krasner? He’s running for district attorney.” And it was said like, “Can you believe it? Isn’t that hilarious? Isn’t that ridiculous?” And that’s exactly what it felt like. It felt absurd. Never did I expect that he was actually going to win.

But the campaign itself just seemed like a really great opportunity to talk about the role of the prosecutor, the role of the district attorney, and kind of assumptions that we’ve always made about what it was, and now thinking about what it could be and something that was totally different. And so, it started out as, you know, the idea of, like, “Oh, this might just be a short film about a stunt campaign.”

And then, when he actually won, it was just like, “Oh, OK. Well, this story is suddenly a lot bigger.” This is now a story about, like: Are you actually going to be able to do any of this stuff? Is change possible in an institution like this? Why or why not? And so, suddenly, it got a lot bigger, and that became the focus of what we thought was going to be a feature and then turned into a multipart series.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ted, why do you think that Krasner did win that initial campaign and why his message resonated with Philadelphia voters? And also, could you also talk about when he came into office, because now you’re filming him, in terms of the decisions he had to make as soon as he got into office to remake that agency?

TED PASSON: Yeah. I mean, I think the reason that he attracted so much attention in the beginning and ended up bringing out a much larger voter turnout than we had had in 20 years prior — 50,000 more voters turned out in this election than had prior — I think it just shows the fact that, you know, the Philadelphia criminal justice system has just been notoriously punitive for many years. It was just the default. And I think a lot of people in Philadelphia really wanted that change and really wanted someone to be saying the things that he was saying on the campaign trail, but just assumed it was never going to happen. I think a lot of people had just kind of given up in terms of the election for district attorney and just assumed that nobody was ever going to come and speak to the things that they wanted to hear, speak about reform in the way that they wanted. I think it just seemed impossible. And the fact that somebody was saying the things he was saying, I think, just excited a lot of people who had kind of gotten out of the process in a way or kind of given up.

And then, in terms of what we’re watching them do, you know, yeah, as you see in the series, they really just kind of hit the ground running. You kind of get the sense from him and everybody in his team that they just could not believe that they were in the office, and so that they were going to do as much as possible. It almost felt like there was this air of like, “Oh, we’re going to be found out, and someone’s going to, like, get us out of here. So we better hurry up and just do as much as we can as quickly as we can.” And so, you know, in the series, we kind of follow that, and we see how — we see how the power of the district attorney is huge and has a ton of discretion. There’s a lot the district attorney can do with absolutely no check on that power, but there are limits. And we kind of see Krasner and his team kind of run up against those limits in the series, as well.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring Nicole into the conversation, as well. This week’s episode focuses on the issue of juvenile lifers. Could you talk about the significance of that issue and what changes Larry Krasner has promised when it comes to that?

NICOLE SALAZAR: Sure. Good morning, Juan and Amy. It’s great to be with you.

Yeah, this week’s episode looks at the issue of juvenile lifers, which basically has to do with children who are incarcerated for crimes they committed as children. And over the last 20 years or so, we’ve seen precedents come out of the Supreme Court based around brain science involving the brains of young people not being as fully developed as adults, that they shouldn’t be held to as punitive standards as adults, that their impulse control and sort of ability to consider consequences is not as developed in that as adults.

So, for 20 years, we’ve sort of seen the Supreme Court move away from some of these — you know, the most punitive punishments, including the death penalty and, up until recently, the possibility of life in prison without possibility of parole. And, you know, Philadelphia is really — has been the leader in the country in terms of sentencing children to life in prison without parole, and so Pennsylvania — Pennsylvania, broadly, and then Philadelphia, specifically.

And you see, in 2016, there was a Supreme Court decision that basically said, you know, not only can children no longer be sentenced to life without possibility of parole, but district attorney offices across the country actually have to resentence all the children who had been already sentenced to that sentence. And so you see, slowly, over the years, DA’s offices, including in Philadelphia, starting to do resentencings of these former cases. And basically what that means is the district attorneys have to revisit those cases, look at what kind of rehabilitation has happened over the course of the decades or years that that person may have been in prison, and offer a new sentence for the judge to review and accept or not accept.

And in Philadelphia, you know, Larry Krasner had committed to, on the campaign trail, sentencing juvenile lifers to less time in prison than some of the sentences that you were seeing. You were seeing a lot of sort of de facto life-in-prison sentences — you know, a 60-year sentence or a 50-year sentence. Those sorts of things were not uncommon. And between the sentences from the prior DA, Seth Williams, and DA Krasner, a study came out that said that their sentences were on average about 10 years less.

And so, we follow, in episode five, which aired last night, the case of Joseph Chamberlain, who was sentenced for the murder of Sultan Ahmad when he was 15 years old. And you see, through the course of the episode, both Joseph having to go up against the parole board and sort of make his case to the parole board, and the D.A.’s Office sort of considering his case, and eventually his release from prison. And we also follow the family of — you know, the parents of the boy that he killed and sort of their having to sort of grapple with revisiting that case and sort of deal with the consequences of his release.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip from Philly D.A. as the district attorney’s team rolls out the new juvenile sentencing reform policies. The clip begins with Bob Listenbee, Philadelphia’s first assistant district attorney, who was brought into the office by D.A. Larry Krasner.

ROBERT LISTENBEE: When you have a different vision, sometimes it takes new leadership in order to implement that vision. And we’ve reached that point.

LARRY KRASNER: I really need the opinion of a cross-section of folks that are in this room to really get policies done right. I just don’t want to have people who are stuck in this entrenched culture to silence everyone else who has come here to make a difference.

DANA BAZELON: OK, we should figure out why kids are being sent to placement. What do you think makes the most sense?

EBONY WORTHAM: Overhaul of crossover court would really sort of dismantle some of the dysfunction that we see.


EBONY WORTHAM: It’s bad. And young people end up God knows where.

UNIDENTIFIED: This is a map of the different locations where youth can be sent in the state of Pennsylvania. You might as well be sending some of these kids to Canada.

DANA BAZELON: Do you think we should use “youth” or “child” or “juvenile”?

MIKE LEE: I think “juvenile” has become derogatory. But whatever word you use is going to become derogatory.

ROBERT LISTENBEE: We’re at a point where we actually recommend our policies to the DA.

DANA BAZELON: We’re not asking for random drug screens as a condition of probation unless there’s a reason to believe that the child has a drug problem. … The metaphor that I have found most useful is the idea of shrinking the footprint, making the system smaller and less damaging.

MIKE LEE: The ADA should recommend an alternative to detention at the time of any new arrest.

EBONY WORTHAM: And avoid criminalizing normal, albeit unwanted, adolescent behavior.

LARRY KRASNER: So, how soon are we going to roll this out and scare everybody?

AMY GOODMAN: That last voice, DA Larry Krasner. Nicole Salazar, if you can comment on this and the Supreme Court case and, finally, the critical issues that you felt that you’re seeing not only DA Larry Krasner deal with, but progressive DAs around the country?

NICOLE SALAZAR: Sure, yeah. One last thing that I should have mentioned previously is that just last month there was a new decision by the Supreme Court that basically was a U-turn from all of those prior cases that I was mentioning that were limiting the punitive nature of sentencing for juvenile — for children convicted as juveniles. And so, now it’s — you know, while there are 25 states, I believe, that have outlawed life without possibility of parole for juveniles, in all the other states that sort of pattern that we’ve been seeing of these cases being resentenced, all of that is now open for question. Some of those individuals very well might die in prison because of the new case that was ruled 6-3 and had the opinion written by Brett Kavanaugh just a couple weeks ago.

The clip that you just showed was sort of — you know, had to do with other juvenile policies in the office. And sort of what we track in the series is not so much some of the specifics in the policies that they’re putting forward, but actually the tensions between the new guard, between Krasner’s team and the existing prosecutors in the office, because part of what’s so interesting about sort of trying to track institutional change is understanding that even when you have a leadership change like you did in Philadelphia that was quite dramatic, you know, this is an office of 600 people. There are 300 attorneys in the office. And while Krasner did fire 30 prosecutors when he came into office, there are still many people who had been part of the existing system, who were doing their work day in and day out, who know a lot of the details of the system, who are still in the office. And so, we really kind of used the debate and discussion around juvenile policies to sort of get at what that tension is and sort of how different people coming from these different perspectives were sort of forced to kind of work together, or not work together, and sort of see how that unfolds.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break for a moment, and then we’re going to come back to this discussion. Nicole Salazar and Ted Passon are the co-creators of the PBS series Philly D.A. Nicole is also a former producer at Democracy Now!

When we come back, we’ll be joined by one of the people featured in Philly D.A., LaTonya Myers, a formerly incarcerated person who became an activist helping people who are arrested to navigate the bail review system. Stay with us.

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