Addressing Mass Incarceration From Within the System

Daniel Hautzinger
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner
Larry Krasner "just seemed like the exact opposite of what the district attorney could be or would be," says filmmaker Ted Passon. Photo: Ryan Collerd, composition by Tynell Marcelline

Philly D.A. airs Tuesdays at 9:00 pm beginning April 20 and is available to stream.

Ted Passon first heard of Larry Krasner’s unlikely bid to become district attorney of Philadelphia in a phone call. “A friend called and told me, ‘Hey, you know Larry, the guy who represents all the activists? He’s running for district attorney,’” Passon recalls. “He was saying it like he was telling me a joke. I never thought for a minute that he was actually going to win.”

Krasner’s 2017 run for D.A. did seem doomed. A civil rights attorney who represented activists from ACT UP, Black Lives Matter, and Occupy Philadelphia pro bono and had sued the Philadelphia Police Department 75 times, Krasner was an unusual candidate for an office that worked closely with the police to prosecute individuals accused of crimes.

Passon and his co-director Yoni Brook decided to follow the campaign with cameras. “I heard a lot of people complaining about the district attorney’s office, but I never saw someone take concrete steps to say, ‘It doesn’t need to be this way. Let’s just do something else,’” he says. “[Krasner] just seemed like the exact opposite of what the district attorney could be or would be. If nothing else, [his campaign] felt like an interesting way to talk about this issue.”

But then Krasner won—decisively. “We realized that the story was now going to be, ‘What’s going to happen? Is he actually going to be able to do this?’” Passon says. “Then we thought, ‘We can’t just be in these rooms where these conversations are happening, we have to meet the people whose lives are being impacted by these conversations.’ So then that was people who were incarcerated, people who were on probation. It’s also the police, it’s also the public defenders, it’s also city government. And that ended up being eight hours of documentary”—culled from almost daily filming during the first two years of Krasner’s administration. (Passon’s production company’s office is a block away from the D.A.’s office.) “Even then, we still felt like we were scratching the surface.”

And yet the eight-episode series digs into the nuances of criminal justice issues, from police accountability to cash bail to probation reform. All of these are priorities of Krasner, steps on a path to reduce mass incarceration. When Passon began following Krasner, Philadelphia was the most incarcerated big city in the United States, itself the most incarcerated country in the world.

Krasner eliminated cash bail for most nonviolent crimes and stopped prosecuting people for possession of small amounts of marijuana. He also recommended that a prosecutor calculate the cost of imprisonment each time they considered sending someone to prison, then explain in court the “unique benefits” of imprisonment.

Similar policies have been implemented by a wave of progressive prosecutors like Krasner who have won office across the country in recent years, from Chicago’s own Kim Foxx to D.A.s in California, Orlando, St. Louis, Boston, and other cities. They “share a platform of reducing the societal harms of criminal justice” and support “measures that are more rehabilitative than punitive,” wrote The New Yorker’s Jeannie Suk Gersen, who also called Krasner’s election “the pivotal moment” for the movement.

“The movement of progressive D.A.s does have a big history of Black women leading at the front: people like Kim Foxx, Aramis Ayala, Marilyn Mosby, Kim Gardner,” Passon notes. “I think one of the reasons that Larry became such a big deal nationally was that he had never worked a day in his life as a prosecutor, which is extremely rare. And then beyond that, his reputation of being so oppositional for so many years with law enforcement, having sued the police 75 times. The idea of who could become a district attorney got wider.”

Krasner’s unusual background put him in opposition to many of the prosecutors he had been elected to lead. He made waves by firing 31 prosecutors during a snowstorm in his first week in office, in an attempt to begin changing a notoriously tough-on-crime, high-sentencing district attorney’s office. Disagreements over his reforms continued as he upended the basis of many remaining prosecutors’ entire careers. Some of the debates were filmed by Passon, who received a remarkable amount of access.

“If you can imagine, it’s a really difficult thing to say to somebody, ‘Hey, I’d like to see you disagreeing with your boss on camera,’” Passon says, laughing. “But thankfully we found some people. Both sides felt like people knowing the conflicts that were happening within the walls was important. We’re really grateful that people trusted us.”

He continued, “From Larry’s standpoint, he thought having a record of him either succeeding or failing or both would be a blueprint that other people could watch and learn from.”

It’s a blueprint that might be increasingly observed, as more progressive prosecutors are elected. It will also be put to the test this year, as Krasner runs for reelection at a time when violent crime has surged across the country, in part due to the effects of the pandemic. “Krasner’s opponents are basically talking about the rise in crime as if it is directly related to his policies, despite the fact that there’s a rise in violent crime all around the country,” Passon says. “Despite the fact that under our most regressive and punitive D.A. in recent history, Lynne Abraham, homicide rates were as high in certain years as they were during the pandemic.

“In some ways, what’s happening now actually supports the progressive prosecutor argument that when you take away funding for things that prevent crime, which is what happened under the pandemic, then you’re causing crime. We talk about addressing crime after it’s happened, rather than talking about, ‘What are the things that would prevent crime from happening in the first place?’”

“The problem for changing the prosecutorial model is that the narrative around prosecution, crime, and safety also has to change,” says Passon. “That’s a really difficult thing to do when you have people who are living in very violent areas who are rightfully scared. That’s a big theme of the series: how you have that conversation when you also have crime and people looking for immediate answers.”