The DA Who Freed Meek Mill Is Revolutionizing Criminal Justice in Philadelphia


Aiyappa Bollera

Philadelphia based rapper Meek Mill was first arrested at the age of 19, when during a 2007 drug bust, “police allegedly used Meek’s head as a battering ram.” He was served with an illegal carry charge and has since been at the whim of the Philadelphia criminal justice system. Meek has spent almost his entire adult life has been spent either in prison or living under parole. For the past decade, he has had to balance a successful rap career with excessive punishments for parole violations for a crime he committed as a teenager. His story is not abnormal, with thousands of men and women facing similar excessive punishment from the state on a yearly basis. Today, however, Philadelphia is showing signs of change. Larry Krasner, public defender turned district attorney, petitioned the judge presiding over Meek’s case for his release and an overturn of his sentence. While his case still remains in the system, Mill was released for his parole violation on April 24th of this year, representing just one of many reforms that Krasner has pursued in his brief time as DA.

Larry Krasner is a Philadelphia-raised attorney. He attended Stanford Law School, graduating with a JD in 1987, and immediately moved back to Philadelphia to work as a public defender for six years, before starting his own civil rights law firm. He built up a reputation for taking on pro bono cases to fight against excessive and unjust prosecution, as well as for defending activists in a variety of areas. In 2017, he ran for Philadelphia District Attorney on a platform of radical and far-reaching criminal justice reform. He won a seven-way Democratic primary in a landslide, nearly doubling the vote total of the second place candidate, before winning in the November general election.

Philadelphia has long been a metropolitan stalwart of the carceral state. While the prison populations of next door New York and New Jersey have declined over the past decade, Pennsylvania’s population has increased, particularly in Philadelphia. In 2015, Philadelphia County had an incarceration rate of 739.5 people per 100,000 residents between the ages of 15 and 64, far and away the highest of any major American city. Philadelphia’s police department has historically been incredibly discriminatory, with reports of numerous cover ups and a systematic lack of discipline for violent misconduct. Additionally, in the past, the city was notorious for its liberal usage of the death penalty. His election was the result of a mass movement and response to years of “law-and-order” rhetoric and came with the understanding that he would represent a complete reorientation of the status quo.

On January 1st, 2018, Krasner assumed office as District Attorney and immediately began implementing some of the most radical criminal justice reforms in the country. He uniquely understands how the incentive structure of traditional prosecutorial institutions leads to mass incarceration. In his own words from the campaign, “The culture of the DA’s Office is like a sports culture. They try to maximize convictions and maximize years.” These incentives, and the institutional memory of the DA’s office, have led to an oftentimes unjust system. As a result, Krasner has attempted to tackle these issues head-on.

On February 15th of this year, Krasner released a memo detailing a variety of new policies for prosecutors in his office. He instructed Assistant District Attorneys, or ADAs, to refuse to charge the purchase or possession of marijuana, as well as prostitution cases where the sex worker in question has fewer than three prior convictions. ADAs were also to focus on diversion programs, which would steer first-offenders and non-violent offenders away from jail and into accountability and re-entry programs. Krasner set limitations on probation terms and encouraged prosecutors to seek shorter probation sentences whenever possible. Perhaps most revolutionarily within the memo, Krasner instructed all ADAs to state the cost of sentencing “at sentencing, to state on the record the benefits and costs of the sentence you are recommending.” For example, a prosecutor seeking a 5-year prison sentence would be forced to state, on the record, that the total cost to taxpayers would be approximately $210,000, explain how this cost compares to the cost of probation, and then specifically clarify why this prison sentence was worth the overall cost to the commonwealth.

When it comes to changing the institutional memory of the organization, Krasner has not pulled punches. On January 4th, merely his third day in office, Krasner fired 31 prosecutors in the DA’s office, including a full third of the city’s homicide prosecutors. His spokesperson cited their unwillingness to buy into the program of reforms Krasner was seeking. Moreover, the DA’s office released a list of police officers considered to be un-credible witnesses, due to a variety of charges against them. This “do-not-call” list included officers who had driven drunk, burgled, lied to investigators, and committed domestic abuse. He also chose to pursue first-degree murder charges against a police officer for the killing of an unarmed man, the first such charge against a local police officer for actions in the line of duty in nearly two decades. The Philadelphia PD has vilified Krasner as a result, but he remains unfazed.

In his brief tenure as District Attorney, Krasner has also taken meaningful steps towards ending patterns of injustice within the Philadelphia criminal justice system. The litany of sentencing reforms and systemic changes Krasner has pursued in the mere 10 months since he took office have helped reintroduce hope into the Philadelphia criminal justice system.


Image Credit: BG Productions