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Crimes and punishment

PBS series Philly D.A. gives an insider’s view of progressive policy reforms in Philadelphia


Photography by Ryan Collerd. Composition by Tynell Marcelline.

Crimes and punishment

What’s the result when a 30-year civil rights and criminal defense attorney becomes the chief prosecutor in a big city? Positive criminal justice reform or misguided social experiment?

In 2017, Philadelphia citizens elected as city district attorney Larry Krasner, whose campaign platform included ending mass incarceration, eliminating cash bail, and not seeking the death penalty. Philly D.A., a PBS documentary series, offers an insider’s view of Krasner and his office’s rollout of policy changes.

Frustrated by a decadeslong prosecutorial agenda of, in his words, “lock ’em up, lock more of ’em up, lock ’em up for longer,” Krasner emphasizes reform over prolonged punishment. He questions the decision to choose incarceration at $42,000 per year per inmate versus funding schools, drug treatment programs, and job training to stop crime. Meanwhile, police, judges, and former prosecutors repeatedly advocate incarceration and probation as necessary to ensure public safety.

Each episode highlights a different program in Krasner’s controversial agenda. To meet his goal of reducing the incarcerated population, his office stops requesting cash bail for nonviolent offenses and refrains from prosecuting for prostitution and low-level drug offenses—despite officers continuing to make arrests. He declines to seek the death penalty in the case of an officer killed on the job. Using criminological science, he works to persuade criminal court judges to reduce probation terms that can amount to 10 years or more for an offender.

Krasner concedes some defendants should serve life prison sentences. But he claims, “People can change.” After 30 years in criminal defense, Krasner acknowledges criminals can’t truly rectify their crimes, yet he asserts that people who commit monstrous acts “seldom are monsters” later in life.

His ideas, which up-end the Philadelphia establishment, offer an unconventional approach viewers should weigh thoughtfully. In balancing victims’ rights, public safety, and the deterrence of crime, how much punishment is enough before society suffers diminishing returns?


Maryrose Delahunty

Maryrose is a correspondent assigned to WORLD’s investigative unit, the Caleb Team. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and a practicing attorney.

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Salty1

I am not against looking at crime from an economic point of view, but we must include all the hidden costs - such as letting out repeat offenders. Also, there is a moral element where Christians want our laws to align with biblical values, so we don’t necessarily want to depenalize prostitution or blue laws.