With nearly 75 percent of the vote, District Attorney-elect Larry Krasner easily won the race to become Philadelphia’s next top prosecutor, but what comes next might be the more difficult part.
On Tuesday, 147,666 Philadelphians voted to elect Krasner as the city’s new district attorney, according to Philadelphia County’s election results. Krasner, who has spent decades working as a criminal defense and civil rights attorney but has never served as a prosecutor, ran on a campaign of sweeping criminal justice reform, including no longer seeking the death penalty and working to change the city’s cash bail and civil asset forfeiture systems.
Transitions always present challenges, but with the level of change Krasner is promising, plus the fact that the office faced falling morale due to the leadership of former District Attorney Seth Williams, who was recently sentenced to five years in prison for bribery, the incoming district attorney’s entry may be particularly tricky.
Many attorneys are excited for the changes. Greenblatt, Pierce, Funt & Flores attorney Ronald Greenblatt said having the office stop seeking the death penalty alone would be hugely beneficial for the city and the criminal justice bar.
“It’s been a real problem. It’s cost millions of dollars every year for a punishment that’s been very ineffective,” he said. “It really has been poisonous to the relationship between the defense counsel and the prosecutors. I do think that single issue will go a long way towards dampening down the rhetoric that’s going on between the defense bar and the prosecution.”
However, Krasner also has many critics, some of whom are the attorneys he will be in charge of.
After Krasner beat six other Democratic candidates in the May primary, attorneys told The Legal that the win raised concerns within the office, and several said they expected to see more assistant DAs putting in their resumes to work elsewhere.
A spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office on Wednesday afternoon said nobody had submitted any resignations as of the morning after the election, and First Assistant District Attorney John Delaney said the mood of the office Wednesday was one of anticipation.
“People are looking forward to Larry Krasner taking over the office, and are committed to continuing to do their work and working with him and his staff to ensure an orderly transition,” Delaney said.
However, some attorneys say the transition will be difficult.
Richard Sax is not a Krasner supporter. Sax spent 37 years focusing on prosecuting homicide cases in the DA’s Office before retiring in April, and he said he is worried about the reforms Krasner advocated, in particular not seeking to prosecute some non-violent drug crimes.
“To the law-abiding citizens who have their car broken into, or a low-level drug dealer on their corner … I would say those are significant. They destroy people’s quality of life,” he said.
Sax said Krasner’s campaign has alienated some in law enforcement, and could lead some prosecutors to leave. Also, firing well-liked top brass in the office could have a lasting effect on the office, he said.
“If a good man who cared a lot about the office and ran a tight ship, and after spending all those years and decades, if someone like him is gone, what will that do to the morale? I think it’ll be bad, but I hope it doesn’t happen,” he said. “For that amount of institutional and generational knowledge and experience to go by the wayside is frightening.”
“I’m hoping career prosecutors who are really dedicated and have experience won’t be [leaving],” he said.
Sax said that keeping Delaney as first assistant, or bringing back a familiar face like Edward McCann, who left the office in 2015 to become first assistant for the Montgomery County DA’s Office, could go a long way toward helping ensure buy-in from line prosecutors during the transition.
Ross Feller Casey attorney Kevin Harden, who worked as a prosecutor until 2014, said whoever Krasner brings in at the top level in his administration will need to be “a taskmaster.”
“Whoever becomes a top candidate to become the first assistant will be someone who turns the lights on and turns the lights off in the office and doesn’t have a problem with that,” Harden said. “Someone who’s unflappable. Someone who has significant experience dealing with law enforcement, and a strong relationship with law enforcement.”
Harden also said that, to bring about the changes he promised, Krasner will need top leadership with experience outside the Philadelphia DA’s Office, but he agreed that having leaders with experience within the office will also be key.
“The DA’s office is like a big family. A dysfunctional family at times, but still a family,” he said. “When a transition such as this occurs, in-office norms have to be almost re-established, and when those norms are shifted or tampered with, people are going to pull back.”
Over the past few years under Williams, the office suffered significant attrition, and Krasner’s first moves should also include assessing the office and seeing what key roles have been left vacant, Harden said. Although that presents challenges, it also presents an opportunity for Krasner to tap more young leaders for the office and to increase the diversity of its leadership, Harden said.
“There are already people who are more progressive than Larry in the DA’s office, and there are people who are more conservative than Clarence Thomas,” Harden said. “Now you’re going to see a more diverse group of ideologies in top leadership.”
Krasner was not made available for comment Wednesday.