DA’s Office to Axios: You Got Our Drug Arrest Policy Completely Wrong

The publication interviewed Larry Krasner for its HBO news series and wrote that he was considering a policy where he’d “stop charging drug users as criminals.” A Krasner spokesperson says that’s not even remotely true.

larry krasner axios

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner may be a local official, but as any skim through the New Yorker, the New York Times magazine, and Newsweek would show you, he’s sure got a national image. (We’ve profiled him, too, by the way.) Generally, these big national media stories are a chance for Krasner to stump for the platform that he’s already been selling in Philly. In other words, there aren’t that many surprises — except, in the case of that New Yorker piece, the revelation that our DA used to wear a ponytail.

But when Krasner gave a recent on-camera interview to Axios, as part of the news outlet’s TV show that airs on HBO, he made a massive proclamation, or so it seemed. On Wednesday, Axios posted a clip of the interview — which hasn’t aired in full yet — with the headline: “Philly prosecutor may stop charging drug users as criminals.”

Here’s the catch: Krasner spokesperson Ben Waxman says Axios got the story wrong. Reached by phone on Thursday, Waxman said Krasner’s not at all suggesting that the DA’s office would stop charging people with possession of any and all illicit substances.

That’s the city’s current decriminalization policy with regard to marijuana — but only marijuana. City Council decriminalized possession of most amounts marijuana back in 2014, doling out fines to most offenders instead of criminal charges. Prosecutors still pursued criminal possession charges in some rare cases up until last year, which is when Krasner announced he’d end all marijuana possession charges, regardless of weight.

The policy proposal Krasner shared with Axios, according to Waxman, is different. Krasner was apparently trying to say he’d like to employ a so-called “diversion” approach for all other drug possession charges. That means people arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance would have the opportunity to enter a drug treatment program, which, if completed, would result in no prison time and no criminal record. Crucially, though, everyone would still be charged. “The Axios piece really conflated a bunch of different stuff,” Waxman said. “I don’t think they understood the difference between diversion and decriminalization.”

The confusion is arising over a 40-second chunk of the interview, in which Krasner was asked, “What is something you think would work in the criminal justice system that most people would think is crazy?”

His response: “One of things we’re looking at is essentially diverting all possession of drugs cases. Possession is different than dealing. It’s different than carrying a bunch of drugs that you intend to sell or deliver later. … We are talking about people who are using drugs, the vast majority of them suffering from addiction. I do not see value in convicting people like that, thereby making it harder for them to get a job.”

The critical word there is “diverting.” Axios writes in its story that the diversion program “means anyone arrested or charged for having small amounts of illicit substances would not face incarceration or having a criminal record.” But that’s not quite right. With diversion, there’s a possibility of not facing incarceration or having a criminal record, if the person completes certain requirements like drug treatment. But it’s hardly a given. A guarantee of no jail time or criminal history would be more in line with a decriminalization policy, and even though Axios never uses the word “decriminalization” to describe Krasner’s proposal, Waxman insists the portrayal of the DA’s idea is totally off-base. (It also didn’t help matters of clarity when the Inquirer published a story about the interview, which was even more inaccurate in claiming that Krasner was considering “rolling out policy decriminalizing drug possession.”)

“This Axios thing makes it seem like we’re about to decriminalize heroin,” Waxman said. “It’s just stupid.”

No one from the DA’s Office has reached out for a correction on the story, according to an Axios spokesperson. “Axios went to extraordinary lengths to clarify the specifics of this story with Krasner’s team, as well as other experts, to ensure the article’s accuracy given the complexity and nuances of the topic,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement. “This interview was recorded on video. We stand by our reporting.”

Lost in the jumble here is the fact that Krasner’s proposed policy — which is still just that: a proposal — wouldn’t actually be anything new for Philly. In 2018, there were 5,458 arrests here for possession of drugs other than marijuana, according to a statewide database. More than 2,700 of these people ended up in one of Philly’s preexisting diversion programs, according to Waxman.

In other words, Krasner’s simply considering an expansion of a policy that he’s already enacting — which is considerably less interesting and provocative than full-blown decriminalization. For a brief moment, though, it appeared that Philly was about to be on that trailblazing path. Alas, it turns out Philly is still not a place where you can, for instance, take magic mushrooms and not fear getting arrested. For that, you’ll have to move to Denver.