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Larry Krasner’s Lonely, Radical Crusade to Solve America’s Gun Problem

The progressive prosecutor wants to fight gun violence with a light touch. His critics say he’s crazy. His defenders say he’s onto something.

This article was published in collaboration with The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom covering guns in America.

On August 14, Philadelphia police tried to serve a man named Maurice Hill with an arrest warrant for a drug charge. Hill had an extensive criminal history that included robbery, aggravated assault, and illegal possession of a gun. He was also armed with an AK-47. As police moved in, he started firing, and by the time he surrendered, eight hours later, six officers had been wounded.

The next day, the federal prosecutor for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Bill McSwain, blamed the confrontation not on Hill, but on the preeminent public official charged with upholding the law in Philadelphia. “The crisis was precipitated by a stunning disrespect for law enforcement,” McSwain said in a statement. “There is a new culture of disrespect for law enforcement in this city that is promoted and championed by District Attorney Larry Krasner.”

It is the kind of accusation that Krasner, 59, has grown accustomed to hearing ever since he won election in 2017. The left-wing prosecutor, who emphatically rejects the tough-on-crime philosophy that has prevailed for decades in cities across the country, has been called pro-criminal and anti-police, the “worst district attorney” in America, and a stooge of liberal billionaire George Soros.

Despite McSwain’s attempt to blame Krasner for the Hill shooting, court documents uncovered by The Appeal showed that Hill had repeatedly been released following arrests because he had acted as an informant for the local federal prosecutors’ office—that is, at the behest of McSwain’s predecessor. And Hill surrendered only after his attorney got in touch with Krasner, who went to the scene to persuade Hill he’d be safe if he turned himself in for arrest.

Still, Krasner doesn’t expect the attacks against him to stop. That’s because he is the most prominent—some would say the most radical and pugnacious—figure among a new crop of prosecutors who are seeking to reshape a broken criminal justice system. Unlike traditional prosecutors, Krasner does not measure success by accumulating convictions and toting up lengthy prison sentences. Instead, he has promised to address abuses by the criminal justice system and imprison fewer people for less time. And he thinks all of that can drive down gun crime.

“What conservatives have said forever is you can have safety, or you can have freedom,” Krasner said in an interview last September in his downtown Philadelphia office. But “people’s freedom makes us safer.”

Krasner says that efforts to hold police accountable will restore trust in the law among long-marginalized Philadelphia communities most plagued by gun violence—and that the resulting boost in public trust will lead to more cooperation with investigations. Shifting resources to improved social services will similarly reduce both shootings and levels of incarceration, Krasner argues. Fellow big-city prosecutors including Eric Gonzalez of Brooklyn, Kim Gardner of St. Louis, and Rachael Rollins of Suffolk County, Massachusetts (which includes Boston), have committed to similar agendas.

Krasner has fought to end prosecution of marijuana dealers and sex workers, greatly reduced the use of money bail, and exonerated 10 people convicted by his predecessors. He has prosecuted more Philly cops for illegal stop-and-frisks, over the objections of police unions and his colleagues in law enforcement. But of all the moves Krasner has made as DA, diverting gun possession cases away from prosecution has generated the most controversy.

Criminologists and Philadelphia community activists say that Krasner’s approach, while unorthodox, is backed by sound social science. They also argue that giving people who carry firearms a second chance may, in fact, reduce gun violence by addressing the factors that lead to gun possession in the first place—namely, pervasive cynicism about the justice system’s ability to keep people safe.

Philadelphia has been Krasner’s home since he was eight years old. Aside from attending the University of Chicago in the early 1980s and Stanford Law School almost immediately after that, Krasner has been rooted in the city and its left-wing activist circles.

For 30 years before his election as DA, Krasner had his own practice as a criminal defense and civil rights attorney, earning a reputation for putting the justice system itself on trial. He now occupies the expansive offices high above the southeast corner of Penn Square, overlooking Philadelphia’s landmark City Hall and overseeing the institutions of justice that were for decades his frequent target.

On the day I met Krasner, he was surrounded by aides and stacks of papers. His close-cropped silver hair and dark suit suggested little of his activist past, and he credited the police for their bravery in the Hill crisis. But he wasn’t about to forget his deep reformist sympathies. He was proud that the standoff was resolved without excessive force, saying they had avoided a repetition of the 1978 and 1985 MOVE sieges, two infamously violent confrontations involving the police that still haunt the city. MOVE, a black radical group, had refused to comply with court orders to vacate the row houses it was occupying. The first time police intervened, they tried to bulldoze the home where the group was headquartered while people were still in it. An officer died in a shoot-out. The second time, police fired 10,000 rounds into another MOVE base and eventually dropped explosives on the building from a helicopter. The resulting fire killed 11 people, including five children, and burned down an entire residential block.

Smoke rises from the ashes of a West Philadelphia neighborhood on May 14, 1985, the morning after a siege between Philadelphia police and members of the radical group MOVE left 11 people dead and 61 homes destroyed.
Peter Morgan/AP/Shutterstock

“When you are trying to get someone to surrender peacefully, it doesn’t hurt when there is a restoration of some level of trust in the criminal justice system,” Krasner said.

He draws a straight line from his work as a defense attorney to his philosophy as DA, applying the insights he gained from representing thousands of clients over three decades. Advocates of a more punitive model of criminal justice argue that aggressive tactics like stop-and-frisk and lengthy prison sentences deter gun-carrying, which leads in turn to reductions in violent crime. But Krasner says his clients did not necessarily carry weapons to commit crimes. Usually, they said they needed to protect themselves because they did not feel they could count on police to do the job.

As DA, Krasner has declined to prosecute some nonviolent illegal gun possession cases, typically involving people carrying without a state-issued license (outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvanians can openly carry a weapon without a license). Before Krasner arrived, the prosecutor’s office only rarely sent gun possession defendants to a program called Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, or ARD, which puts participants on a path to supervision (akin to probation) without marring their record with a conviction. Krasner made it policy to divert to ARD gun carriers who had previously clean records and had purchased their weapons legally.

From the time Krasner took charge, in January 2018, through early December 2019, Philadelphia’s DA office sent 150 gun possession cases to ARD. That amounts to only about 3 percent of all illegal possession defendants during that time, but it’s still more than seven times the total number of gun possession cases diverted to ARD in the two years before Krasner took office.

Krasner thinks he can avoid pushing nonviolent offenders toward a life on the margins by reducing convictions that make it hard to find jobs and housing. “You have to be willing to entertain the notion that, sometimes, a measure of mercy, a second chance, or a form of accountability that does not result in a conviction will dissuade people from crime—whereas the opposite for that same person, meaning a conviction, will push them toward crime,” he said.

Local critics have voiced outrage over the program. A columnist for Philadelphia Magazine said it was “disastrous.” John McGrody, vice president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, said diversion was an insult to law enforcement officials. “We put our lives on the line to lock up criminals and one of the most difficult things you can do is confront someone with a gun,” McGrody said. “It’s infuriating to see someone walk out of court without any punishment. It drives our members insane.” He maintained that tough sentencing was still the best response to gun possession. The Philadelphia Police Department declined repeated requests to comment.

There has yet to be a comprehensive evaluation of the overall recidivism rate for people whose possession charges are tossed. Krasner said his office conducted an analysis (“not entirely scientific”) that suggested ARD participants reoffend less frequently than those criminally prosecuted. He pointed out that many people who have been imprisoned go on to commit more crimes after their release, indicating that incarceration didn’t deter them from criminal activity. “Reporting on this issue generally has been about failure of diversion,” he said. “It’s never about failure when you don’t divert.”

By national standards, Philadelphia’s violent crime rate is very high. The number of homicides recorded in 2019 was 356, the city’s highest total since 2007. Philadelphia now has the worst homicide rate of any of the country’s 10 largest cities, and more than 80 percent of killings in Philadelphia were committed with guns. The city was shocked by a string of shootings in 2019 that took the lives of young children, with more than 100 minors hit by bullets.

Critics blame Krasner for these high rates of crime. But data shows that when Krasner’s predecessors were in charge, violent crime and gun violence were even more pervasive than they are now.

During much of the time Krasner was a defense lawyer, then District Attorney Lynne Abraham loomed large over Philadelphia’s criminal justice system. From her election in 1991 through her retirement in 2010, Abraham earned the epithet “the Deadliest DA” for her aggressive pursuit of the death penalty. She was known for arraigning defendants with the most severe possible charges to secure long prison sentences, helping to fuel mass incarceration.

While Abraham served as DA, the Philadelphia police ramped up stop-and-frisk tactics, making more than 250,000 stops in 2009. (In 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city, resulting in a consent decree with the Department of Justice that cut the number of stops by more than half by 2018.)

But those tactics haven’t coincided with the kind of sustained decline in violent crime seen in cities like New York and Los Angeles. According to data submitted to the FBI by the Philadelphia police, the city’s handgun homicide rate has zigzagged. In 1993, it reached a then-record high of 21 deaths per 100,000 residents, before slowly dropping to a low of 14 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2002. But then it started to climb again, hitting its all-time peak in 2006, at 22 per 100,000 residents. The pace of handgun homicides declined again until 2014, when the most recent uptick began.

Nonfatal shootings are far more common than gun homicides, but reliable data is notoriously difficult to find. As Natalie Kroovand Hipple, a professor of criminal justice at Indiana University, has written, the closest proxy for nonfatal shootings is the rate of aggravated assault, a category that includes many gun crimes among other kinds of assaults involving weapons. In Philadelphia, the rate of aggravated assault was low in the early 1990s but surged throughout the Abraham era. While assaults increased slightly in the first year of Krasner’s term (2019 data is not yet available from the FBI), they were still 20 percent lower than in the last year of Abraham’s tenure.

As Krasner turns away from the carceral strategies of past administrations, he has focused on making justice swift, rather than severe. The National Institute of Justice, a research arm of the Department of Justice, argues that the speed and certainty of punishment deter crime more than severity: Speed decreases time for witness intimidation and retaliation, while a severe punishment means little if perpetrators don’t think they will get caught. Severity may also offer diminishing public safety returns since it’s widely acknowledged that people are far less likely to commit crimes past their mid-20s.

Since Krasner took office, he has tried to reduce how long it takes to prosecute violent crimes. In September, Krasner’s office and the Philadelphia Court System debuted a plan to accelerate nonfatal shooting cases by giving them a dedicated courtroom. His goal is to cut the average time it takes to resolve such cases in half. In the first two years of Krasner’s term, cases of aggravated assault with a gun are on average resolved 34 percent more quickly when compared to the combined average of the four years before he took office. Homicides, rapes, and robberies carried out with a gun, respectively, took 9, 4, and 23 percent less time as well.

Krasner’s thesis—that the sustained alienation of marginalized communities is a strong factor in Philadelphia’s gun violence crisis—has evidence to back it up. A number of prominent, peer-reviewed studies show a strong relationship between people’s feelings about the legitimacy of the law and their likelihood to carry a firearm.

People who live in a high-crime environment and do not perceive the criminal justice system as a trustworthy or effective source of safety are more likely to carry guns, according to a 2016 paper by Rutgers University sociologist Michael Sierra-Arévalo. His survey looked at 141 people arrested for violent crimes in Chicago, finding that those who exhibited what he called “legal cynicism” were most likely to carry a gun.

A 2012 paper titled “Why Do Criminals Obey the Law?” found that feelings about the legal system’s legitimacy had a stronger effect on whether criminals would carry a gun than any other factor the researchers considered, including age, gang membership, education, or, crucially, the deterrence of heavy policing and harsh legal penalties. The more trust people had in the legal system, the less likely they were to carry a firearm.

To reduce gun possession, “we need a bigger change to how people feel about their safety in marginalized communities,” Sierra-Arévalo said in an interview.

While African Americans are generally far less likely than white Americans to own guns, those who do are much more likely to say they own a firearm for their own safety—82 percent of African American gun owners, compared to 65 percent of white gun owners, according to the 2015 National Firearm Survey by scholars at Harvard University and Northeastern University, the most recent nationally representative poll of gun owners’ attitudes and behaviors.

Ryan Hancock, a Philadelphia employment attorney and activist who served on Krasner’s transition team, has met many residents who said self-defense was a crucial factor in their decision to own a gun. Hancock chairs the board of Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, or PLSE, a nonprofit that advocates for people with criminal records and runs monthly workshops on how to expunge those records. At workshops, he said, there’s always someone who wants to clear their record so they can legally buy a gun for self-defense.

“We’ve heard that so many times: ‘Do you know where I live? I could get killed. I need a gun,’” Hancock said.

Consider the case of Tarik, a PLSE workshop attendee who asked to use his first name only while he was seeking work. In the late 1990s, soon after Tarik graduated from high school, he became a small-time drug dealer. Before he was arrested and sent to jail for nine months on narcotics charges, he said that he and his friends sometimes carried guns when they left the house. They were motivated by the ever-present fear that they would be robbed. Tarik didn’t trust the police, partly because of his own illegal activity, but also because he didn’t think they actually protected his neighborhood.

“I’ve been held up at gunpoint a number of times,” Tarik said in an interview. “It’s scary. My body went numb.” But he never bothered going to the police or pressing charges. “Somebody’s gotta get shot and killed for the Philadelphia police to come around.”

Today, Tarik says he has changed his ways and stays off the street. He’s married, with a grown daughter, and has a job at a homeless shelter. But his criminal record still weighs on him and has cost him two jobs, he said. It also prevents him from legally owning a gun, which he wants both for a job as a security guard and for personal protection.

Reformers like Hancock believe cases like Tarik’s complicate the conventional understanding of who wants to carry a gun and why. “Prosecutors often think of people who illegally possess guns as all the same,” he said. “I have a different perspective. I understand the difference between someone who wants a gun for self-defense and a shooter.”

A number of prominent criminal justice experts agree. “Not everybody carrying a gun is the same. Some are predatory and deeply dangerous, and others are scared of those other guys,” said criminologist David Kennedy of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who has worked with police and policymakers in Philadelphia to develop alternative strategies to reduce gun crime. “The reform prosecutorial impulse to try to distinguish between those two kinds of people is really sound.”

That makes some gun carriers better candidates for diversion, said Fordham University law professor John Pfaff, whose book Locked In highlights the central role prosecutors played in the rise of mass incarceration. “Gun possession, while inherently dangerous, does not necessarily indicate aggression,” Pfaff said. “Prosecutors have the voice to say that gun possession reflects our inability to stop violence, so let’s do that rather than just punish people.”

Others question whether the distinction matters when it comes to reducing shootings. Thomas Abt, a research fellow at Harvard and former prosecutor whose book Bleeding Out outlines ways to eliminate gun violence, said that people who carry guns are more likely to use them, whatever their stated motivation. “So many of the shootings we see aren’t planned—they happen when there’s a conflict and a gun happens to be nearby. If the gun wasn’t there, the conflict would get resolved some other way,” Abt said. However, Abt agreed that incarceration was not always the right approach and that some low-level gun cases could safely be diverted.

It’s too early to know if Krasner’s reforms will lead to fewer shootings. But local activists believe that the black Philadelphia communities who suffer the most from gun violence have sensed that their relationship to the justice system could be changing.

Bilal Qayyum, who has been an anti-violence organizer in Philadelphia for 40 years, said the young men most likely to shoot or be shot need to “see they’re getting a fair shake” before they stop carrying guns. He believes Krasner is conducting more successful community outreach than his predecessors. “The people he talks to are from the troubled population I’m talking about,” he said. “And you’re talking about a prosecutor!”

Asa Khalif, a prominent local Black Lives Matter activist and a former client of Krasner’s, praised the DA’s new approach to the trial process, in which he has reduced the use of cash bail and collaborated more closely with the city’s public defenders’ office. For example, the Philadelphia DA now works with defense attorneys to help their clients through the ARD process. “Folks come back to the hood, and people say, ‘I thought I wasn’t going to see you for five years! What happened?’” Khalif said.

Krasner’s innovations have resulted in a more functional system. A study of city court data by a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and George Mason University found that a year after Krasner cut down on cash bail, started releasing more defendants on their own recognizance, and worked with the public defenders to modernize the court notification process, attendance at court dates had reached a 10-year high.

All of these reforms could have a positive effect on the city and state’s finances, Krasner eagerly points out. The drop in incarceration rates has already saved the city and state enormous sums. Under Krasner’s tenure, the DA’s office has reduced future years of incarceration by a third. Each year of incarceration in Pennsylvania costs the state $42,727, as of 2015. The drop in convictions means Pennsylvania is paying approximately $131 million less to imprison Philadelphians every year in the Krasner era.

The potential windfall could go a long way to financing robust anti-violence programs and other underfunded social services. Krasner spoke highly of violence interruption, in which workers try to identify brewing disputes and cool tensions before a shooting happens, or focused deterrence, a program targeting those most likely to commit acts of violence with a carrot-and-stick approach of social services and jobs if participants stay out of trouble. “Those seem more sensible, instead of switching from a War on Drugs to a War on Guns,” Krasner said.

An October study by the city’s comptroller’s office found that investment in violence prevention services could begin a virtuous cycle, more than paying for itself when accounting for improved property values (and thus higher tax revenue) in areas where shootings fall. The comptroller estimated that a $43 million investment in initiatives like violence interruption over five years could generate $70 million in tax revenue above the cost of the programs.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, a Democrat, has supported similar strategies. Early in 2019, Kenney announced a five-year, $31 million anti-violence plan called the Philadelphia Roadmap to Safer Communities, with $4.4 million earmarked for “holistic” violence prevention measures, such as interruption, in the first six months of last year. In November, Kenney announced an additional $5 million separate from the Roadmap plan, specifically for focused deterrence–style combinations of intensive policing and provision of social services, which academic studies have shown to be among the most effective policies for reducing shootings. The $5 million will likely become available in 2020.

Kenney also recently hired Portland’s Danielle Outlaw as the city’s first black, female police commissioner, to replace Richard Ross, who resigned this August following a sexual harassment scandal. Outlaw has received mixed reviews from liberals: She was applauded for her decision to dispense with the city’s gang database, which critics said ensnared many poor minority residents on the basis of thin evidence, but was criticized for the police’s handling of street fights between antifa and far-right groups.

Krasner told The Philadelphia Inquirer his office would “stand with her to try to help make the kind of reforms that this city needs, because justice really does make us safer.” Krasner’s office also hailed Kenney’s Roadmap plan when it was announced. But when asked during the interview if the initial batch of money was sufficient to address the depth of the city’s gun violence crisis, Krasner pointed to the far larger sums saved each year by reducing incarceration. That’s money that only the state legislature can reallocate.

And it’s at those higher levels where Krasner’s reforms may face their biggest challenge, given some of the high-profile enemies he seems to relish making, like McSwain and Donald Trump, who has singled him out at rallies for condemnation. Indeed, during the interview, Krasner smiled when he bluntly labeled as “racist” suburban and rural legislators who have opposed calls to shutter prisons.

In June, staffers in the office of Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, vented about Krasner’s diversion program, according to emails obtained by criminal justice reform group the Justice Collaborative and reported by The Intercept. Diversion for gun possession charges would “allow violent offenders to be on the street increasing crime and shootings/homicides,” wrote Brendan O’Malley, the state’s chief deputy attorney general for gun violence. The staffers went on to pitch the Inquirer on negative stories about Krasner and guns in off-the-record conversations.

In July, the state legislature passed a law that allows police in Philadelphia to bypass Krasner and ask the state attorney general to press gun possession charges. After widespread criticism, Shapiro said days later that he would support a repeal. Nonetheless, the law is still in place, and the episode damaged Shapiro and Krasner’s already fraught relationship.

Others in the legislature want to further tie Krasner’s hands. In August, two state senators introduced Philadelphia-specific legislation that would impose two-year minimum prison sentences on those convicted of possessing a gun in public in the city without a license to carry—exactly the kinds of defendants Krasner now diverts out of the justice system. The bill has not advanced out of committee. In late September, the state House Judiciary Committee advanced a separate bill to impose mandatory minimum sentences on people convicted of crimes committed with firearms.

Krasner doesn’t hold out hope that the state government in its current form will prove supportive. “The politics have to be right,” Krasner acknowledged. “But somebody has to be willing to shrink the criminal justice footprint and put the money back into things that prevent crime. Somebody has to be willing to close jails.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained quotes from Movita Johnson-Harrell, who was a state lawmaker at the time she was interviewed. She later resigned amid corruption allegations and was convicted in January 2020.
We have also corrected statistics about the time it takes Krasner’s office to prosecute violent crimes.