Meet the D.A. Candidate Who’s Defended Black Lives Matter and Occupy in Court
When Larry Krasner kicked off his campaign for district attorney in downtown Philadelphia in early February, more than a dozen political activists stood behind him. There were Black Lives Matter leaders, Occupy Philly alumni, and Arch Street United Methodist Church pastors, among others, almost all of whom Krasner has defended in court. “My biggest accomplishment has been to represent individuals,” he says, “as they faced the Goliath that government can be in order to make sure that they got fair trials and that their constitutional rights were preserved.”
In addition to working as a civil-rights attorney, Krasner has served as a city and federal public defender. A few years ago, he famously accused several narcotics officers of misconduct, and D.A. Seth Williams announced afterward that he would no longer call those cops as witnesses. If elected D.A., Krasner promises never to seek the death penalty, to work to eliminate cash bail, and to take other actions aimed at lowering the city’s sky-high incarceration rate.
It’s all but guaranteed that the Fraternal Order of Police will stand in Krasner’s way during the election. If billionaire George Soros supports him with a super PAC, as some expect, Krasner will likely also have to deal with pushback from voters opposed to spending from outside groups. The Democrat spoke to Philly Mag recently for more than an hour about his campaign. The following transcript, the first in a series of interviews with all the D.A. candidates, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Larry Krasner’s Platform at a Glance
- Death penalty: Strictly against.
- Civil asset forfeiture: It should be “seriously reconsidered” and is “picking on the poor.”
- Cash bail: “We should move towards the no-cash bail system.”
- Gifts: He wouldn’t accept gifts as D.A.
- Super PACs: “It’s just a modern political reality.”
- On how to fight crime: Target the “6 percent of the criminals [who] commit 60 percent of the crime,” not entire neighborhoods of people of color and poor people.
- On whether bad cops are sufficiently held accountable: “I agree with what Black Lives Matter has said.”
Why are you running for district attorney?
The kilter of the D.A.’s office in Philadelphia is extremely problematic. It has been for a very long time. It is reflective of a national pattern, and that national pattern is that we have far too many people in jail. In fact, it’s the most incarcerated nation in the world. We have as many black and brown people in jail, in prison, on probation, or on parole as we had in slavery at the beginning of the Civil War. But none of that has made us safe. The culture of the District Attorney’s office has brought us to this situation of having drastic injustice, especially focused on poor people and black and brown people. That culture needs to change. That culture can change. And I believe that this year, this time, the beginning of Trump world, is the time when there is a national recognition of the need for prosecutors’ offices to go a different direction. As the most progressive candidate in the field who has a coherent and detailed platform, I believe I can provide that change in the direction of the District Attorney’s office.
What are the biggest accomplishments of your career, in your opinion?
My biggest accomplishment has been to represent individuals one at a time — I think a Catholic worker would call this the “little way” — as they faced the Goliath that government can be in order to make sure that they got fair trials and that their constitutional rights were preserved and that the system worked. There are certainly some landmarks that are probably worth noting. I came out of law school in ’87, and around 1990, Mayor Goode plucked this baby public defender and appointed him to a committee that was investigating a conflict that occurred between AIDS activists and Philadelphia police in front of the Bellevue-Stratford hotel. There were some ACT UP protesters who were marching along with a phony coffin full of ashes that were intended to symbolize the ashes of people who had died from AIDS. During the course of this expression of free speech, the theatrical coffin gets knocked over, the ashes start to fly, and police began swinging their clubs, cracking a skull, making protesters bleed. Needless to say, the ashes were not the ashes of human beings. It was a pretty big scandal. Our panel came out with a very lengthy and important report that was on the cover of the newspapers at the time. That was a very important moment for me because it indicated that, as much as I love being a federal public defender, my career was going to require me to get out of the public defender’s office eventually so I that I could defend free speech and file civil rights suits on behalf of people.
It’s been 25 years since I left the public defender’s office doing criminal defense and civil-rights cases, some of them involving issues of police corruption or police brutality, but others involving employment discrimination on occasion. I’ve also done some pretty high-value personal injury cases — for example, on behalf of an immigrant worker who was paralyzed at the age of 19 and who was up against insurance companies that were trying to ship him abroad as quickly as possible to inferior healthcare so they could pay less and so they could also claim, despite his paralysis, that he was only entitled to foreign wages as compensation for the negligence of his employer and the related defendants in the case. I’m also probably fairly well known for having defended protest groups pro bono or, on occasion, “low bono.” They have included ACT UP, Kensington Welfare Rights Union, Black Lives Matter, The Simple Way, Occupy in 2012, and the Republican National Convention protesters whose necks were stepped on. … That was 420 people who were drastically overcharged and had multiple felonies dropped on them and were prosecuted by specially selected homicide prosecutors under Lynne Abraham’s reign of terror. They were acquitted at a rate of about 98 percent of defendants and 99 percent of the charges. And I am particularly proud of that because it set the tone in the city of Philadelphia that there would be free speech and that the consequences of that kind of drastic overcharging of people would be that that kind of government overreach would lead to repeated losses in front of juries, embarrassment for those who had acted in such a draconian fashion, and bad press.
… And then, of course, there’s my involvement in the cases of several Philadelphia police officers who ended up charged in federal court for corruption in their handling of drug cases. At this point in history, over 100 of their convictions, which is effectively most of their life’s work, have been overturned. But at the time I became involved, none of them had been overturned and those officers were active narcotics field-unit officers. I had a particular case in which a college student was charged with drug activity, and I filed a request, which went to the district attorney, the Police Commissioner, and all their top deputies, demanding that they provide exculpatory information that would show what they knew about whether or not these officers were involved in lying under oath, stealing money, falsifying probable cause, backdating warrants, and things of that sort. The District Attorney’s office vigorously resisted that request. … Finally, the judge says, “No, if you have it, you have to turn it over.” Then the District Attorney’s office dropped the case against my client, basically, so they wouldn’t have to turn the information over. Letters were exchanged between Police Commissioner Ramsey and Seth Williams. The one from Williams to Ramsey says, “We’ve decided, in essence, that we’re no longer sure of the credibility of these officers, so we’re not going to call them on drug cases anymore.” … My involvement in that matter continues today because, even though those officers were eventually acquitted by an all-white jury, which is drawn in federal court from Lancaster and Red Hill and a lot of other places where Donald Trump is a popular guy, there are now approximately 250 civil complaints filed against them for convictions that were overturned. My law firm and I were selected to be chief counsel for the plaintiffs. So we are effectively the tip of the spear in terms of dealing with the civil cases against these individual officers and the city of Philadelphia.
What is your position on civil asset forfeiture, the practice that lets district attorneys seize cash and property from citizens even if they aren’t charged with a crime?
There obviously is a proper, appropriate role for some civil asset forfeiture. If Pablo Escobar decides he’s going to live in the city of Philadelphia and the house is full of kilos and skeletons, then I don’t think anybody disputes that the house and all the cars become the property of the taxpayer. However, those are not the issues we’re dealing with Philadelphia’s civil asset forfeiture program. What we’re dealing with is, for example, the house that’s getting taken away from grandma because of what the 17-year-old grandson should not be doing in the house, even though she is unaware or unable to control what he’s doing. And the problem, of course, is that while the government has infinite resources to file paperwork and board up houses, they’re doing it mostly against poor people who don’t have a lawyer on speed dial and a pile of money to pay a lawyer.
There have been far too many instances of houses, cars, and cash being taken away from innocent parties because of alleged illegal activity by relatives, simply because they don’t have the ability to respond properly. It is, to some extent, picking on the poor. Second, you have more discrete issues, like if we find cash on someone who has drugs, even if it’s a small amount of drugs, we’re just going to assume that all that cash is illegal and we’re going to take it all. The amounts of money may be quite moderate — $120, $80 — but we’re going to take it anyway. And, to some extent, they’re going to take it because they know that nobody’s going to be able to hire an attorney to fight that for that kind of money. It is one of many ways that the city takes money from the poor, including our cash bail system, which I consider to be improper. Civil asset forfeiture needs to be very seriously reconsidered and reorganized. We need to have someone with a very different attitude about it than the Republican candidate for district attorney.
Critics say the reason the D.A. seizes those kinds of smaller assets is because there’s a financial incentive to do so: The D.A.’s office gets to keep the money it takes. Would you support sending assets to, instead, the school district or the city’s general fund?
I think it’s always a problem when government or an individual has the financial interest of taking someone’s assets. We saw that with the Japanese internment camps, which is one of the more troubling pages of United States history. So, yes, I would agree that legitimately forfeited money should not be redirected specifically to law enforcement because it just creates too much of an incentive.
Do you think a conviction should be required before the D.A. seizes someone’s assets?
There’s what I think, and then there’s what the law says. What the law says at the moment is pretty complicated. It has always been my position that when people are not found guilty, they should get their bail money back. Yet we have a system where, even if you are found not guilty of charges after being involuntarily arrested, the city’s going to keep 30 percent of the bail money, which I consider to be an outrageous form of theft and taxation of the poor. I feel similarly about forfeiture. My preference would be that they can’t forfeit it unless there’s an actual conviction. While I can’t control what the law says, I certainly would exercise my discretion not to seek forfeited items unless there’s an actual conviction.
Where do you stand on cash bail?
I believe that the best way to modify the cash bail system, which basically hurts the poor, is that we should move toward the no-cash bail system, where the people who are released have some pretty serious obligations to address problems that many of them have. Many of them have mental-health issues; many more have drug-addiction issues. If we were to work with grassroots organizations in Philadelphia so that there were daily check-ins with drug treatment and psychological treatment, I believe that would be a much more effective way to get people to court without singling out and hurting the poor in a way that people who have more money are not affected. When you arrest a poor person and you require cash bail that they simply can’t pay, what you’re doing is sentencing them from the moment of arrest. You’re not doing that to someone who is middle class or someone who has plenty of assets. It’s a very perverse system. You almost take away any sort of fact-finding about the truth for poor people, and you place them in a position where they’re going to be feeling a coercive push to plead guilty later to some kind of time-in sentence even if they haven’t done it. We shouldn’t have two tracks for rich and poor, or even middle class and poor, when it comes to justice and the right to a fair trial.
Obviously, a no-cash bail system does not mean that all offenders are released regardless of their criminal records, history of bench warrants, and severity of their charges. Such a system would be a sea change in the levels of destructive and expensive incarceration, however.
What’s your position on the death penalty?
My position is I will not seek it. It is a drastic waste of resources that could be used to make people safer. Philadelphia is an outlier and a throwback, and it is the only city in the Northeast that still has the death penalty. And so we all understand, it’s not really a death penalty, because no one has been involuntarily executed since 1962, when I was one. I’m now 55. It is a death sentence that never gets carried out, but costs a ton of money in order to litigate. It costs a ton of money in paying the public defender’s office in order to do far more work than is necessary for an ordinary criminal case, and places a drastic inconvenience on the court system because it turns homicide cases that might take one week into cases that take three weeks. It therefore delays how quickly we can try another homicide case or a rape case or an armed robbery case because court rooms are full and people are just sitting in jail waiting and waiting and waiting for these trials. Death row itself also costs an extra $10,000 per year per inmate. We have something around 180 to 200 people on death row right now in Pennsylvania. So you’re looking at a couple million dollars just to keep those people in a different cell per year.
Start comparing that to the average income of a Philadelphia family, which is about $41,000, and start comparing that to what it takes to pay for a young teacher, a young police worker, or a young social worker. With $2 million, we can have 50 teachers for a year, we can have 50 young police offers, or we could have 50 social workers, and that’s just that small part of the total cost of the death penalty. In addition to all of that, it’s immoral. The fact is it shows no ability to deter homicides and it puts government in the business of killing people, and it’s doing it during the Trump administration. It’s doing it when we have someone in the White House who is a wannabe dictator and has an absolute disregard for constitutional limitations. It’s a little bit like leaving a loaded gun around the house when you have a child running around to have the death penalty available when we have Donald Trump in the White House.
Philadelphia’s homicide and violent crime rates have decreased recently, but they’re still too high. What’s your plan to reduce those numbers?
I would follow the guidance of the best experts in criminology, who point to the fact — and it’s a hugely important fact — that 6 percent of the criminals commit 60 percent of the crime. That fact leads us to the conclusion that, instead of having this really wide system that sweeps up a ton of poor people, black people, and brown people, and then treating them all as if they were similar, we need to proactively target the 6 percent who are responsible for so much crime. We need to go after them and give them appropriate sentences, rather than what we do now, which is wait for all kinds of people to swim into the net. And by the way, that net is really only cast in the neighborhoods of poor people and in the neighborhoods of black and brown people. The consequence is that we spend a ton of money keeping a ton of people in jail when it’s wholly unnecessary. And even though a district attorney does not control what the police do, a district attorney is certainly in a position to work with forward-thinking police departments. And I do believe that Police Commissioner Richard Ross is trying to have a forward-thinking, modern police department.
Do you think there are racial disparities in sentencing and charging in Philadelphia? If so, how would you address that?
Yes. There are a variety of ways to address it. The first thing is not to do what Seth Williams did when he refused to allow an outside nonprofit do an evaluation of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office. He was approached by an organization in New York that had done a survey of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, and he was given the opportunity to do that early in his first term, when there would have been no blowback on him. For reasons I cannot fathom, he said no. I would have outside experts come in and do their audit on the files to determine the extent to which there’s institutional racial disparity in charging and in sentencing.
How do you correct it? It kind of depends on exactly what you find, but it certainly will require that we don’t ignore patterns of police going into certain neighborhoods and ignoring others. It is the obligation of the District Attorney’s office to seek justice. That means we can have that conversation with the Philadelphia Police Department when we start to find that there are never arrests of young men for marijuana in Chestnut Hill, but there are tons of arrests for marijuana at Germantown and Chelten Avenue, because there’s been an institutional decision made that we’re going to check all the young men in the area of Germantown and Chelten who just so happen to be black and brown, and we’re not going to check all the young men in Chestnut Hill whose parents have a lot of resources and are hanging out in front of the Wawa. In general, the studies have shown that prosecutors don’t sit around in a room and do what Jeff Sessions would probably do, which is to intentionally discriminate. What has been shown is that there is a persistent, subconscious level of racism. It’s not intended. The people involved don’t want to do it. And to the extent that you can accurately study it, you can find ways to change those outcomes.
How do you think Williams’s unit aimed at reviewing potentially wrongful convictions has done?
It has failed.
What changes would you make to it?
The office includes many capable prosecutors who are just as interested in innocence as I am. The best of them need to be in this unit with ample resources to carry out their work.
Your fellow D.A. candidate Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni has criticized Williams’s decision to no longer accept cases from Philadelphia narcotics officers who were indicted and then acquitted. Specifically, she said the “District Attorney’s office has sent a signal that the drug crimes are not going to be prosecuted.” Since your actions in court led to Williams making that choice, what is your response to her comments?
I disagree. Officers hold a position of public trust. Any witness called by the District Attorney’s Office must be credible and have a history of behaving in a manner consistent with that public trust.
Other candidates have proposed charging more people with homicide who have delivered drugs resulting in death. What do you think of that approach?
Depending upon the circumstances, a homicide charge may be appropriate. Homicide charges in drug-related deaths are not uncommon in federal or state courts generally.
How would you grade Williams’s job performance over the years?
I’m being asked the question after Seth has withdrawn from the district attorney’s race. … I decline to pile on. When I watch a football game, I don’t like to see the seventh person jump on that tackle.
I want to ask you about some of the most high-profile decisions Williams made while in office. Last year, a case came across his desk involving an alleged assault by labor leader John Dougherty. He kicked the case up to the Attorney General’s office because, he said, he had a “long-standing professional relationship” with Dougherty. Was that the right decision?
I think that district attorneys always have to be sensitive to the possibility of a conflict, but I don’t think that means you allow a situation to exist where people can donate money to you as a way of making sure they’ll never get prosecuted. My recollection of that scenario was that John Dougherty and the IBEW donated to pretty much everybody, right? If by making decisions about conflict, you’re creating a scenario in which someone can escape prosecution just by donating to everybody, then you need to dig in and do what is appropriate to ethically prosecute.
When Lynne Abraham was D.A., she basically referred all cases involving elected officials to the Attorney General’s office or federal authorities as a matter of policy in order, she said, to avoid a conflict. What do you think about that?
Well, I don’t actually think Lynne Abraham did much for reasons other than her own self-promotion. I don’t. I think she was an absolutely dreadful prosecutor who perpetuated the long shadow of Frank Rizzo on criminal justice in Philadelphia. So I really don’t except her rationale. But having said that, do I think that local authorities should always refer prosecutions of local officials to the A.G.’s office? No. I think it depends on a lot of specific circumstances and that, to me, looks more like a question of playing politics than some sort of careful consideration of the individual case in terms of conflict issues.
Another controversial decision Williams made was not firing three prosecutors involved in the Porngate scandal. Instead, he had them undergo sensitivity training. Was that the right choice?
I think “involved” is vague term. Without commenting on all the individuals, that Porngate scandal had many, many aspects to it. One of the really troubling aspects to it was we had a Supreme Court justice who was having ongoing private communications with prosecutors but not defense lawyers while he had a big docket in front of him of cases involving criminal matters. That is a very incestuous relationship, to be having a friendly email engagement between a supposedly independent Supreme Court justice and prosecutors. And if anybody doubted how close and how intimate these communications were, well, I’d like to point out there’s a lot of porn, and there’s also a fair amount of racist and demeaning content that went beyond the normal demeaning nature of porn in relation to women.
There were layers of problematic interactions here. The porn itself was disturbing enough, and certainly not what we expect of people who are working and on the payroll of the government, being paid by taxpayers for their time. But I see a difference between someone who didn’t ask to receive a pornographic email and may even had said “don’t send me any more of these” or ignored them or didn’t open them … and someone who’s actively engaging in it. I would say this, though: Without singling out those individuals, I would have tended to make sure they left the office.
I asked the other D.A. candidates about Williams’s decision to not press charges against former Eagles player LeSean McCoy for his role in an alleged bar fight. [Editor’s note: Krasner was McCoy’s defense attorney.]
LeSean McCoy retained me shortly after the incident itself occurred. I ran the early investigation of that case, including gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses, etc., so I have in-depth knowledge that probably goes beyond what the public knows. I certainly cannot convey anything that is privileged information, but I will say this: There’s no question in my mind that LeSean McCoy should not have been charged, and there’s no question in my mind that all of the available evidence pointed in that direction, and therefore, I believe that the right thing was done.
Are you seeking support from the Fraternal Order of Police?
I would love to have the support of the rank-and-file membership of the FOP. I think many, many, many of them would give me that support because there are hard-working, good cops who will observe their oath to uphold the Constitution. In my opinion, John McNesby and the leadership of the FOP have hijacked the membership of the FOP, many of whom never would have endorsed Donald Trump. Donald Trump got 15 percent of the vote in Philadelphia, which is 80 percent Democratic and has a near-majority of its citizens and residents who are not white, okay? In my opinion, he doesn’t represent the average, decent, rank-and-file officer.
He spends his time backing up officers who are accused of corrupt conduct and lambasting any district attorney who doesn’t do exactly what he wants all the time. So would I accept the endorsement of the membership of the Fraternal Order of Police rank-and-file members? Of course I would. But that will never happen because John McNesby and the other leadership have hijacked them. I would love to get the endorsement of the Guardian Civic League, which is the black police union who came out and condemned John McNesby and the FOP for endorsing Donald Trump. I have represented police officers. I have represented police applicants, and, frankly, I have been called many times by police officers to represent their kids when they’re in trouble and they’re concerned that the lawyers associated with the FOP will not go after problems with the police in those situations. Obviously, I can’t identify those individuals. But, to me, that is a window on how the good, hard-working police officers who observe the Constitution feel about me.
Williams has come under fire for accepting and not disclosing gifts. Would you take gifts as district attorney?
Some of the D.A. candidates, including Rich Negrin, have said they won’t take campaign donations from criminal defense attorneys. What’s your position on that issue?
My position is that’s part of the problem. What you’re doing with a candidate like Rich Negrin, for example, is you’re dealing with someone who has a basically authoritarian view and has no interest in the input of criminal defense attorneys, okay? The reality is that he’s a career government employee. He identifies with government and, therefore, in his mind, criminal defense lawyers are bad people. I don’t think criminal defense lawyers are bad people. I think a lot are good, and some of them are bad. I don’t think police officers are bad people. I think a lot of them are good, and some of them are bad. And I don’t think all people in government or all district attorneys are bad people. I think a lot of them are good, and some of them are bad. But if you’re going to have an improvement in the criminal justice system, you have to stop pretending that, somehow, anyone on the defense side is bad and the prosecution side is good or vice-versa. So yes, of course, I would take donations from criminal defense attorneys, many of whom are ex-assistant district attorneys that are supporting me because they’ve been in the District Attorney’s office and they know how much that culture needs to change.
What about super PACs? Do you think they should be involved in the D.A.’s race?
Well, post-Citizens’ United, super PACs are involved in, essentially, all races. And, as you know, there’s a lot of us who would like to roll back Citizens United, but unless or until that happens, they are a reality. And they’re going to run their own outside operations to support Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan or Donald Trump or, you know, Bernie Sanders or the most progressive and liberal candidates around. Because they are not controlled by the candidate, and because they cannot coordinate with the candidate, the fact is they are simply taking a position on a matter that they care about for good reasons or for bad reasons. So I think it’s just a modern political reality, especially if you have an outsider candidate — a candidate who spent his or her career representing poor people, standing up for civil rights. Especially if you have a candidate who’s not in the pocket of Exxon or Sunoco or big pharma, or is not a political insider who spent his or her entire career in government and schmoozing up to big corporations, then you’re going to see super PACs that are progressive and want things to move in the right direction. The reality is the conservatives and Republicans have been using super PACs for a very long time, and progressives and liberals have to play the rules of the game as the game exists now.
Philadelphia has seen a massive number of opioid overdoses recently. How would you deal with that issue?
I think it’s part of the D.A.’s job to play a role in that, but sometimes you’ve got to step back and look at the big picture. One of the things we see in other jurisdictions is that, where marijuana is readily available, there’s a 25 percent reduction in opiate/opioid overdose deaths. So if Philadelphia is looking at 500 opiate/opioid overdose deaths a year, a district attorney, by choosing not to enforce against marijuana usage, can potentially save 125 lives. That’s what a district attorney should exercise his or her discretion to do.
Likewise, we talk so much about heroin and opiate/opioid overdoses. We all know how this happens. It’s not that people decide one day that they really want to do heroin and snort it. What’s really happening is that we have an epidemic now because the pharmaceutical companies have generated four times as many pills that are opiate/opioid pills and after, for example, some lifelong athlete suffers a sports injury or someone has geriatric surgery or has their wisdom teeth taken out, they’re given this medication. They become addicted to it, and then they shift to heroin and their lives go off the rails. At least from the perspective of using the D.A.’s office as a bully pulpit and for lobbying, a district attorney should do something to try to address the fact that there are too many of these pills being produced and far too many of them being prescribed. Again, it’s just like leaving a whole lot of loaded guns around with kids. It’s a bad idea.
How would you deal with drug users in the D.A.’s office, whether it’s marijuana users or users of harder drugs?
Addiction is fundamentally a medical problem, and the binary model of saying “you did a bad thing, go to jail” for what is a medical problem that requires a lifelong struggle to beat simply hasn’t worked. There have been studies done of Philadelphia’s drug court, which is pretty good, but it needs to be doubled. That is what the studies say: There is insufficient time to deal with each person in the drug court, and as a consequence, if you were to double the size of the drug court and have two judges instead of one, you could end up with a very effective process.
That is a small part of what could be done, though. If we were to shift to a system that really tries to take people when they are arrested and deal with the issues that got them arrested immediately, by having a cash bail system where people are getting out of custody and reporting daily to grassroots organization-run centers, where their addiction or mental illness were addressed — as opposed to waiting months until they’re sentenced and have permanent marks on their records that will disqualify them from work — we would have much better outcomes. There’s a conservative judge — and he’s a good one — who has said to me that he gets better results when he puts people in ankle bracelets than when he puts them in jail. To me, that’s a significant insight. We are really making things worse, despite good intentions, by an awful lot of what we are doing in the criminal justice system in Philadelphia. We’re not giving people treatment early, and then we’re going to convict them so we can force treatment. But once they’re convicted, now they’re not going to be able to get that decent job anymore that would allow them a path other than dealing drugs.
Black Lives Matter argues that police officers often aren’t held accountable when they commit crimes. Do you agree with that? Do you think that Seth Williams has done a good job or not of prosecuting police officers who have broken the law?
I agree with what Black Lives Matter has said. In fact, this is the office that, along with Michael Coard, has defended Black Lives Matter members who were arrested over and over and over since they became a movement. And we have done it, almost always, pro bono. In terms of Seth Williams, again, I’m going to decline to pile on to someone whose mistakes are known and who is no longer in the race.
You want to make massive changes to the D.A.’s office. Do you think you would face pushback by prosecutors if elected?
I think there are a lot of good people in the District Attorney’s office, many of them starting as assistant district attorneys the year I started as a public defender, so I’ve known them since we were all law babies. I think the problem over there is not primarily individual prosecution. I think the problem over there is a culture that, in my mind, flows out of the long-racist and insensitive traditions that come from the Rizzo era. I believe that I won’t get pushback. I believe that there are a lot of people in there who want to move in a different direction, and they’re looking for someone who will change the culture so they can do that.
What would you say to voters who may be concerned that, because you’re a defense attorney, you may not be tough on crime as a D.A.?
I don’t really think there’s anything tougher than being a criminal defense attorney who represents poor people up against the power of government, which has infinite resources when you’re basically doing war with your fingernails. When I came to Philadelphia and decided to settle here with my wife, who also became a civil-rights attorney before she became a judge, I became a defense lawyer in Philadelphia because it was obvious to me that the District Attorney’s office’s culture, which included its mad love for the death penalty, was incompatible with my values. I became a lawyer to do justice. In many cities, it’s just as likely that I would have been a prosecutor. I was a defense lawyer because that was the only hat I could wear and do justice in Philadelphia, under this District Attorney office’s culture. I know the difference between throwing away money that should go to teachers and schools, which prevents crime in the long run, and going vigorously after the 6 percent of the people who do 60 percent of the crimes and giving them appropriate sentences.
Follow @HollyOtterbein on Twitter.