Larry Krassner leads the way on prosecutorial reform

I have railed many times against the fact that police, prosecutors, and even judges far too often see getting a conviction of anyone at all as more important than finding the actual guilty person, even if that results in an innocent person being put to death while the actual criminal walks the streets freely. Very often this is due to the fact that in many jurisdictions in the US, prosecutors and judges and some law enforcement officers are elected positions and being seen as ‘tough on crime’ and boasting of how many people they have put in prison plays positively with voters.

But thanks to the determined efforts of some groups, the innocence of some convicted people has been proved after their conviction, saving them from lifetimes in prison or even death, though their lives have been ruined. Their only recourse for the many years of freedom they lost is to sue the cities for wrongful conviction and incarceration

Megan Rose of ProPublica writes about how the city of Baltimore was forced to pay $9 million to James Owens who was forced to spend two decades in prison for a murder he did not commit.

Owens’ case, and that of another man prosecuted for the same crime, was the subject of an investigation by ProPublica and The Atlantic last September that examined how defendants are pressured into controversial plea deals despite proof of their innocence.

Owens’ payout adds to Baltimore’s growing tab for decades of misconduct by its police force. In November, a jury awarded another wrongfully convicted Baltimore man, Sabein Burgess, $15 million. Like Owens, Burgess had sued, alleging civil rights violations by detectives.

Because Baltimore is self-insured, city taxpayers are ultimately on the hook for these payouts, which total $24 million in the last six months alone.

Now the city is girding itself for more costly lawsuits in the aftermath of a massive police corruption scandal that led to the conviction of eight officers earlier this year.

The only hope against such abuses is for the public to realize that this excessive tough on crime posturing is costing them a lot of money. Rose describes how the legal system was determined to not acknowledge its mistake by forcing innocent people into so-called Alford plea deals where they plead guilty in return for being released. This prevents people from suing the city and prosecutors will keep people in prison for as long as they possibly can, hoping to wear them down and accept the deal. Look at how far they were willing to go in Owens’s case.

But in 2006, semen found in the victim was tested, and the DNA didn’t match Owens or Thompson. Other key forensic evidence proved to be unrelated to the men or wrongly analyzed. Instead of letting the men go free, the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office doubled down. After Owens was granted a new trial, the prosecutors refused to concede his innocence and instead tried to force him into a troubling deal known as an Alford plea. If he took it, Owens would be quickly released from prison and allowed to maintain his innocence on the record, but he’d still be a convicted murderer. And, significantly for cities with checkered histories, the deal would have prevented him from suing. For their part, prosecutors would keep a win on the books and avoid admitting a mistake.

Owens refused, and prosecutors left him languishing in prison for 16 months before admitting there wasn’t enough evidence to re-try him. On the day his new trial was set to begin in October 2008, the prosecutor dropped the charges, and Owens walked out fully exonerated. Thompson, however, took the Alford plea and was left with no recourse to sue for his own wrongful incarceration.

Owens won his appeal, and during settlement negotiations, which had stalled on and off for the last year, a series of decisions made it clear that jurors were fed up. First, last fall, a federal jury awarded Burgess $15 million, more than three quarters of a million dollars for each year he was wrongly behind bars.

Then, this year, six members of an elite police gun task force pleaded guilty and two others were convicted for systematically robbing citizens for years.

I hope more juries get fed up and award these victims of prosecutorial abuse huge sums of money. So far, though, the taxpayers do not seem to be outraged enough to demand widespread changes. But there are some hopeful signs, the most promising being In Philadelphia where civil rights attorney Larry Krassner ran for the position for District Attorney promising sweeping changes and won in a landslide. Shaun King writes that he immediately started exceeding expectations.

In his first week on the job, he fired 31 prosecutors from the DA’s officebecause they weren’t committed to the changes he intended to make. “Change is never easy, but DA Krasner was given a clear mandate from the voters for transformational change,” his spokesperson said at the time. “Today’s actions are necessary to achieve that agenda.”

Next, Krasner obeyed a court order to release a list of 29 officers from the Philadelphia Police Department that were on a “do-not-call list” — meaning that they were so tainted that they would be considered unreliable as witnesses. The police officers on the list had either been charged with crimes or found responsible for misconduct in internal police probes conducted by the department’s Board of Inquiry. Among the offenses, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the police officers had lied to their fellow investigators, filed false reports, used excessive force, driven drunk, and burgled.

After that, Krasner’s office made it clear that he would not oppose rapper Meek Mill’s release on bail. Krasner’s office said in a motion that it was likely Mill, who was arrested almost 10 years ago on drug and gun charges, would win an appeal on his original case. (Mill is in jail for minor probation violations.) The sole officer who testified against Mill is Reginald Graham, who is not just on the list of unreliable cops, but was reported by a former police officer to have lied under oath to put Mill behind bars.

But King says that the most significant thing is a five-page internal document that Krassner circulated giving guidelines to his staff for how they should operate in future. King links to the full document but highlights some of the main features. (You can read Krassner’s guidelines in full here.)

The first sentence says it all: “These policies are an effort to end mass incarcerations and bring balance back to sentencing.”

Then, under the heading “Decline Certain Charges,” Krasner immediately instructs prosecutors to stop prosecuting marijuana possession regardless of the weight. Furthermore, he instructed prosecutors to stop charging those with marijuana with any paraphernalia crimes.

Next, Krasner instructed his prosecutors to stop charging sex workers that have fewer than three convictions with any crime and drop all current cases against sex workers who also fit that description. All sex workers with three or more convictions are to be referred to Dawn Court – a special diversionary program created in 2010 specifically for sex workers with repeat offenses, the first of its kind in the nation.

Under the heading “Divert More,” Krasner then instructed prosecutors to avoid convictions if possible and guide cases for diversion programs instead of jail and prison.

What Krasner’s memo said next was groundbreaking. First, Krasner instructed prosecutors to stop the wide-ranging practice of beginning plea deals with the highest possible sentencing and instead, begin those plea deals at the bottom end of the available range of time that can be served. And when less than 24 months is available as a sentence for a crime, house arrest or diversion programs should be used instead of incarceration.

It’s what came next that genuinely shocked me. I’d like for you to read it. It’s on the third page of the memo, under the heading “Sentencing.”

Krasner instructed his prosecutors to now add up and justify the exact costs of every single person sentenced to a crime in Philadelphia. Stating that the city is currently spending an astounding $360 million per year to jail around just 6,000 people, Krasner then gave examples of all of the things that such money could be doing in the city currently. Stating that it costs between $42,000 and $60,000 per year to incarcerate a person, he reminded the prosecutors that the average total family income of a person in the city was just $41,000. The annual cost of incarceration, Krasner reminded his prosecutors, was currently more per year than the beginning salary of teachers, police officers, firefighters, social workers, addiction counselors, and even prosecutors in his office.

Krasner wrote, “If you are seeking a sentence of 3 years incarceration, state on the record that the cost to the taxpayer will be $126,000.00 (3 x $42,000.00) if not more and explain why you believe the cost is justified.”

These numbers, and Krassner’s work, should be more widely knows so that public realizes that supporting excessive ‘tough on crime’ policies carries real costs to themselves, not just to those they put in prison.


  1. jrkrideau says

    As someone from Canada, I am always amazed at electing district attorneys and jud. It seems like the equivalent of George Bernard Shaw’s point that giving your doctor a pecuniary interest in sawing off your leg may not be the best idea.

  2. jrkrideau says

    Duh that should be “judges” not “jud” though electing jud may not be a good idea either.

  3. says

    […]the innocence of some convicted people has been proved after their conviction, saving them from lifetimes in prison or even death, though their lives have been ruined

    At tremendous cost to the states. Voters need to be made to understand that these practices cost them a great deal of money -- it’s not just a moral issue, their police departments and prosecutors are wasting huge amounts on settlements that they should have been just a bit more careful about.

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