In May, Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s progressive district attorney, beat back a primary challenge from Carlos Vega, a moderate Democrat. Since Philadelphia is a Democratic stronghold, Krasner is a shoo-in to win reëlection in November. The primary was viewed as a referendum on Krasner’s unorthodox approach to prosecution, which starts with the belief that shrinking the footprint of the criminal-justice system, rather than expanding it, will make Philadelphians safer. Since winning office, in 2017, Kranser has earned no shortage of enemies among those who consider his stance to be incompatible with the role of district attorney. Perhaps his staunchest critic has been John McNesby, who heads up Philadelphia’s police union. McNesby, a host of Back the Blue rallies, is known for calling a group of Black Lives Matter activists “a pack of rabid animals,” and for accepting an invitation to the Trump White House, where he spoke out against the threat that Krasner and other progressive—or, in his view, soft-on-crime—prosecutors pose to law and order.
Krasner could not make a more perfect target for the likes of McNesby and the Fraternal Order of Police. He is the paragon of an idealist, a longtime defense attorney who made his career defending victims of police brutality and protesters with groups like act up and Black Lives Matter. He wore a ponytail until he was forty, and he has sued the police on behalf of his clients more than seventy-five times. Krasner’s critics aren’t wrong about his politics being at odds with the mission of an office that is known for incarcerating lots of people for long periods of time. But, after thirty years of continuing to “beat [his] head against the outside of the D.A.’s office,” Krasner—joining a wave of like-minded lawyers across the country—decided to try something wildly different and become the D.A., to attempt to chip away at the system from within it.
This was a dramatic choice, and, when Krasner won, Philadelphia instantly became a laboratory for the idea that mass incarceration could be curtailed by the right chief prosecutor. Fortunately, a team of filmmakers had the prescience to document the experiment from the start. The result is “Philly D.A.,” a captivating eight-part series from PBS Independent Lens, now streaming on Topic, which follows Krasner throughout his first years in office, as he attempts to reduce the number of Philadelphians behind bars and to reform discriminatory practices like cash bail. The tension between Krasner’s ideals and the realities of his office thrums throughout the series, which studies the deep reach of the criminal-justice system into the lives of Philadelphians.
The show begins triumphantly, with Krasner’s improbable victory, in 2017, and his immediate push to end the prosecution of sex work and minor marijuana possession. To anyone who has observed or participated in the process of enacting reform through the typical channels, these early scenes are tantalizing; for a fleeting moment, it can feel as though the old debate between changing the system from without or from within has been settled in favor of the latter. But the triumphalism doesn’t last, and it’s not long before the pace of change slows well below what Krasner’s team, let alone his activist collaborators on the outside, are comfortable with.
Krasner, with his frank, no-nonsense rhetoric and his indifference to tradition, is easy to idealize. In the early episodes of the show, it feels as though the creators—Yoni Brook, Ted Passon, and Nicole Salazar—are gearing up to do just that. There’s an end-of-history mood to scenes such as the one of Krasner’s election victory. “It’s a revolution!” someone on his team exclaims. Soaring music plays as he takes the stage, smiling at an adoring crowd who chant “Larry! Larry!” as they pat their eyes dry.
But, as the series progresses, it evolves beyond hagiography, developing a serious critique of a man who is as arrogant as he is admirable. In one cringeworthy scene, Krasner shows up to a community meeting in the neighborhood of Kensington, a regional epicenter of the opioid crisis. He comes at the urging of the city councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who likes “Larry” but wishes he’d try harder to explain his philosophy to her constituents and soothe their fears that he is making the city less safe. Instead, Krasner comes armed with “data” meant to defend his own record, seemingly expecting that a handout filled with statistics will address the grievances of Philadelphians overwhelmed by the drug trade on their doorsteps. Krasner is hardly wrong to insist on the importance of facts, but his reluctance to offer a narrative in which those facts would be persuasive to anyone who’s not already on his side isn’t just bad politics—it’s a missed opportunity to build the kind of trust and understanding that would enable long-term cultural change.
As Quiñones-Sánchez puts it in the series, “Larry’s unwillingness to do the retail politics is part of who he is, and it’s either gonna make him incredibly successful or not.” Maybe someone on Krasner’s team anticipated the potential political cost of this aspect of Krasner’s personality, which could help explain why they allowed a film crew to embed in their office: they might have welcomed the opportunity to explain Krasner to the public and take some control over his political narrative. Or at least that’s one explanation that crossed my mind as I was trying to understand why they had agreed to something so risky. Krasner reportedly told the trio behind the series that he wanted to “demystify” the D.A.’s office. Whatever the reasoning, Krasner and his staff evidently made a bet in the hopeful predawn of his tenure that things would go basically well, and that having this documented for the public would do more to boost Krasner’s image than to harm it.
As I watched, the question of why “Philly D.A.” got made faded in importance in relation to everything else that happened in the process of making the show—much of which has little to do with Krasner. The most memorable story lines are the ones involving Philadelphians whose lives have been altered by the policies being discussed in the abstract within the D.A.’s office. One thread follows LaTonya Myers, who spent nine months in jail because she couldn’t afford bail, and who now works as an activist trying to prevent that from happening to others. Listening to her recount her experiences and articulate her vision for a more just future is a reminder that the most valuable and effective work is often done by people who have personal experience with the criminal-justice system.
The awkwardness of knowing that the cast of “Philly D.A.” is made up of real, ordinary people, rather than fictional characters, can sometimes make it hard to watch, as they squabble, disappoint one another, and embarrass themselves, as we are all prone to do in our workplaces. But it’s even harder to look away, because watching Krasner and his team do what they’re trying to do is too compelling, no matter how messy, frustrating, and painful things get. In that sense, the show is an argument for trying things, one that is likely to be persuasive to many well-intentioned progressives, who can often feel stuck between two bad options: participate in flawed, harmful institutions with the goal of nudging them in the right direction or boycott them in the hopes of hastening their demise. Krasner made a choice, but that choice provokes discomfort, and it’s not always clear that it was the right one. I wondered if he could possibly feel as assured as he seems when he evangelizes to others, such as when he advises a roomful of people, “When the movement has the chance to go on the inside, go with it.”
As the series documents, a formidable alliance of law enforcement, judges, and wary segments of the public stand in the way of Krasner’s reform efforts, representing the opposition that must be overcome in the struggle toward progressive ideals. But, like so much else in 2021, the divide between the left and the right ends up being less interesting than the divisions within the left. The show overwhelmingly concerns itself with the question of whether institutions such as the D.A.’s office are changeable, but it’s at its best when it starts to ask at what cost we try to change them, or whether it’s possible to do so without letting them change us first. The final episode probes a growing rift between Krasner and the activists who helped get him elected yet now find themselves disappointed by a lack of reform to the cash-bail system. Depressing though it is to watch Krasner let his people down, it’s also inspiring to see the activists doing exactly what they promised him they would: hold him accountable to the movement’s highest aspirations.
Krasner may be a progressive by the standards of the office he holds, but just how progressive does that make him? One of the creators of the documentary said that, when he first saw Krasner speak, his critique of the criminal-justice system sounded “radical.” The whole project feels somewhat less so a year after the murder of George Floyd and the summer of protests that followed it, when thousands of people across the country, building on years of work spurred by Black activists and Black-led organizations, called on their elected officials to defund police departments rather than reform them, and to dramatically reduce the role of prisons in our society rather than steadily chip away at the number of people in them. Some activists, scholars, and attorneys have long asked whether “progressive prosecution” is even possible. As the Harvard Law Review put it, in 2018, “The paradox of ‘progressive prosecution’ is that the criminal legal system is an oppressive institution. Attempting to make the ‘most powerful’ actor in such an institution more progressive seems to miss the point.”
Krasner’s critics on the left are quick to emphasize that he failed to deliver some of what he promised, and that he even threatened to seek the death penalty in one case. (“You take a lot of heat because you’re getting things done,” he once told the Appeal.) Ultimately, the concessions that Krasner must make to the system of which he is inextricably a part position him to the right of abolitionists and progressives who are moving toward abolition. For this group of people, Krasner’s experiment raises complicated questions: how can they push progressive prosecutors to use the powers of their office to serve the movement, while also pushing for the powers to diminish over time? Is what’s good for their cause in the short term always the same as what’s good for it in the long term—and, when it’s not, how to reconcile the two goals?
In other words—how do we live as best we can in the world as it is, while simultaneously striving for the world as it can be? The abolitionist organizer and educator Mariame Kaba has said that “a big part of the abolitionist project” is about “unleashing people’s imaginations while getting concrete—so that we have to imagine while we build, always both.” Krasner’s signature accomplishments—reducing the city’s jail population by more than thirty per cent, prosecuting fewer cases, asking judges for less severe sentences, limiting the terms of probation and parole, and reinvigorating the Conviction Integrity Unit—could reasonably be viewed as building blocks. But it’s also possible that looking to prosecutors to solve problems with the criminal-justice system is a barrier to conceiving more ambitious solutions.
At the end of the first episode of “Philly D.A.,” someone asks Krasner what it’s like being the Man. He responds, “It’s really fun. ’Cause it’s nice to have power instead of outrage.” You get his point, but it’s a worrisome foreshadowing of what’s to come. Isn’t righteous outrage itself a form of power, the essential fuel of movements? What happens to an idealist without it? Maybe he turns into a plain old prosecutor. It looks like we’ll have four more years to find out.