Last November, the voters in Philadelphia, PA did something unprecedented. They elected a District Attorney who ran on a campaign promise to incarcerate fewer people, to be less aggressive in charging decisions. He ruffled a constituency that prosecutors almost universally pander to—law enforcement—by openly discussing the worst kept secret in the criminal justice system: that many officers routinely and casually lie under oath. Larry Krasner did not hide who he is, a civil rights and criminal defense attorney who believes the system is in desperate need of radical reform. Voters responded and Krasner beat his traditional career prosecutor opponent by a margin of 3 to 1.
Many progressives in the criminal justice world watched with very cautious optimism. Krasner is not the first candidate to pay lip service to reform during a campaign only to take office and be deflated by the institutional obstacles that make real reform such a difficult process. Krasner made clear he was not here to play around. He fired 10% of the office’s prosecutors in his first week, targeting staunch death penalty supporters and prosecutors with reputations for misconduct, and making clear that he was not interested in compromise with folks unwilling or unable to get on board with his vision for the office.
Now, only 10 weeks into his tenure, he has released a comprehensive memo directing his prosecutors to change…pretty much everything. Seriously, you should read the whole thing here. What really stood out to me as an incredibly effective tool in forcing some rational thought into the sentencing process is Krasner’s requirement that when a prosecutor requests a certain sentence, they state on the record what the estimated cost to taxpayers of that incarceration period would be. Krasner points out in the memo that the $42-60,000 his office estimates taxpayers spend to incarcerate an inmate for one year is equivalent to a year’s salary for a beginning teacher, police officer, firefighter, social worker or addiction counselor. In making these comparisons in concrete terms, Krasner moves the conversation from the conceptual “idea” that mass incarceration has great societal costs to a real life reckoning with the things we as a society forego when we commit so many resources to incarceration.
Krasner does not stop there, however, highlighting the growing data that suggests higher incarceration rates do not even have much effect on crime rates and acknowledging that the direct financial consequences of incarceration are further compounded by the collateral costs resulting from the disruption to an incarcerated person’s familial and work relationships, to say nothing of the generational repercussions of incarcerating parents.
Philadelphia, while a major city, contains less than half of one percent of the population of the United Stated. Nevertheless, Krasner’s bold reform moves are attracting national attention and my hope is that this idea in particular catches on elsewhere. Even in the most conservative jurisdictions, I believe if voters knew the true cost, both direct and collateral, of the draconian sentencing policy that has become the norm over the last 40 years, especially if thought of in terms of where that money could otherwise be spent, we would finally see broad support for being smart on crime rather than tough on crime. Here’s hoping, anyway.
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