November - Philly District Attorney Candidates Speak on The Issues – Krasner Vs. Grossman
A team of One Step Away vendors had the opportunity to sit down with both candidates running for the office of District Attorney (D.A.) of Philadelphia. In this spring's primary, progressive civil rights and criminal defense attorney, Larry Krasner, won in hotly contested race for the Democratic nomination, in which he united a diverse coalition of organizations and helped mobilize a historically high voter turnout.
On The Issues: Krasner Vs. Grossman
Author Bio: Former One Step Away Vendors Jeff, Eric, Tammy, and Randall contributed to this interview, as well as One Step Away Social Enterprise Manager Jim Irby. Our team of staff and vendors are dedicated to sharing stories that impact all Philadelphians, with a focus on sharing firsthand accounts of experiences of homelessness. Vendors sell their work, poems, stories, and articles throughout Philadelphia for a dollar donation.
A team of One Step Away vendors had the opportunity to sit down with both candidates running for the office of District Attorney (D.A.) of Philadelphia. In this spring’s primary, progressive civil rights and criminal defense attorney, Larry Krasner, won in a hotly contested race for the Democratic nomination, in which he united a diverse coalition of organizations and helped mobilize a historically high voter turnout.
Beth Grossman — who served as an Assistant District Attorney for over 20 years under Lynne Abraham and Seth Williams, and has managed the Dangerous Drug Offender Unit and the Public Nuisance Task Force — ran uncontested in the Republican primary.
Philadelphia’s next Chief Prosecutor will inherit a crowded prison system, an opioid crisis growing in severity, and an office seeking to regain public trust after former District Attorney Seth Williams was outed on corruption charges. One Step Away vendors Eric, Tammy, Randall, and Jeff created a list of questions on some of the issues that matter most to us. The candidate’s responses are edited for length and clarity. Election Day is November 7, 2017. You must register by October 10 to be eligible to vote.
What made you decide to run, and what’s the first positive change you would make?
Larry Krasner: I decided to run because I looked at the candidates and I did not see hope for real change. I have been in the system — meaning in court four to five days a week, visiting people in jails for thirty years, dealing with people who have every sort of difficulty in life, including mental illness, addition, [and] homelessness; and I feel like real change is absolutely necessary.
So, what would be the first thing I’d do? I would recruit the right people to be prosecutors and fill any openings that may exist. In terms of my policies, I’m very adamant about stopping the pursuit of the death penalty, about ending mass incarceration, about changing civil asset forfeiture so they stop taking grandma’s house for what grandkid did or did not do. I’m also adamant about ending cash bail and having a different bail system because I believe cash bail essentially becomes prison for poor people. And then changing a lot of procedures that have resulted in innocent people ending up in jail and guilty people going free.
Beth Grossman: I spent twenty-one and a half years in the District Attorney’s office, and I served in every division: trial, juvenile, law, investigations, and narcotics. Then for eight years I was Chief of the Public Nuisance Task Force Unit. I really found my passion there, because I really like working with people out in the community. It was a different perspective than just being in court — being able to solve things, not necessarily by arrest and prosecution. I decided to run against Seth Williams because I was unhappy with how he was running the office, and I had a feeling what happened was going to happen.
I was a Democrat all my life. But in 2013 I switched because I got tired of a lot of public officials — Democratic public officials — getting investigated [and] convicted of corruption charges. When you’re a public official or a public servant, you serve the public — not yourself and not your pockets.
The first thing I would like to do in the District Attorney’s office is to make very clear that you lead by example, and to explain to all of the prosecutors that we’re upheld to the highest standards of ethics — we are to only follow the law, to uphold the constitution, including those who are accused of crimes, to protect them, to protect everybody in court. We are to take nothing that benefits ourselves personally. To make sure that I impose a very strong code of conduct and ethics — I think that’s the first thing. Because we need to restore the public’s trust in the D.A.’s office.
Being homeless is not a crime, but public space laws have been used to criminalize people experiencing homelessness. What would be your approach to enforcing laws that disproportionately affect people living on the streets?
Larry Krasner: I spent a semester of my third year in law school working for the Coalition for the Homeless in New York so I have a certain amount of interest and background with these issues. Even after I became an attorney in 1987, I was a public defender first, and I ended up representing a lot of homeless people.
I am not interested in convicting homeless people for being homeless. I am not interested in convicting poor people for being poor. There are occasions when the criminal justice system can be used as a form of leverage to get people who need to do things to do things. And the District Attorney has a lot of discretion: Will I bring charges here — yes or no? If I bring charges, what charges will I bring — big ones or little ones? If I bring these charges and they’re scheduled for court do I want bail that would keep them in jail — yes or no? If we’re going to court am I actually going to try to get a conviction, or am I just going to drop this case because what I needed to accomplish by having the arrest is over? Am I going to go for diversion, meaning some kind of program, where if this homeless person follows through the case will be dropped, as a way of getting that person treatment for addiction or as a way of getting that person into an environment where there will be either treatment or medication or both for mental health issues.
I do see a responsibility to act, but I do not see good reasons to vigorously pursue convictions, I would much rather use the system to support and help try to solve the problem than to make the problem worse.
Beth Grossman: It is not a crime. It could be an economic issue, it could involve other things. I would rather work with people just to make sure that if people want it they’re getting services and support that they need. I think that’s really important, because as I like to say, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” And I think everybody needs to be treated compassionately, with empathy, and I think that’s important. And I sometimes think it’s a matter of collaboration and working with a religious organization, or service provider, or those who provide food. You don’t arrest your way out of problems.
And I just get concerned — just from a public health perspective — in inclement weather. That’s where I get concerned with things. Everyone has a right to refuse help as well. You just have to be careful with that. [I] also understand that a lot of times, things involve mental health issues. I think that the police are getting better trained in dealing with folks who may have some issues, whether its autism or just how they react differently with mental health issues.
My oath or my duty — whether you’re the D.A. or Assistant D.A. — is to uphold the law, and if people don’t know it, to educate others. You don’t arrest people for homelessness. You just don’t. And if it’s something that needs attention or if it’s an individual who might be creating issues, then you reach out. You reach out to the police; you reach out to service providers, and you figure it out to do. You’re dealing with individuals usually on an individual basis — you can’t ‘cookie cutter’ things. You don’t rubber stamp your way in the criminal justice system. I’ve never practiced that way, and I will not — would not — run an office that way either.
How will you ensure: 1) Homeless Individuals, People in Recovery, and those with mental illnesses are adequately protected by enforcement officers? 2) Officers are adequately prepared to work with these vulnerable populations?
Larry Krasner: That’s a great question. The problem, of course, is that the D.A.’s office does not run the Police Department, and it also has no control over private security. The solution is to try to work with the Police Commissioner, who I believe is a fairly enlightened, modern, smart person who doesn’t want his police officers to be unduly nasty, unkind, malicious towards people in those categories.
It’s not ok to be violent towards people just because you are frustrated with them. And it’s not ok to invent rules that don’t exist for everybody else to impose on homeless people.
One of the things I see all the time is that you have either law enforcement or you have private security whose very first move when they’re dealing with someone who is homeless, possibly waking up early in the morning outside of a shop, is they start cursing at them — very first thing. And then there’s a kick. Someone is just waking up, and you’re starting this off by cursing and kicking. That should not go on.
There should be a real effort at every level to bring about a different way of law enforcement engaging with homeless people that is much more oriented towards providing assistance than it is towards treating them like they’re scum. Same thing should be happening with private security. But police and private security also need to be aware that the law applies to them.
There has to be one standard for everybody whether you’ve got a uniform or you’re sleeping on the sidewalk.
Beth Grossman: I believe that goes to training and better training. We have to train our thinking as police officers and as prosecutors too. A lot has changed since I started in 1993. Under Commissioner Ross, I think training is getting better for law enforcement to respond with those who are recovering who might also have mental health issues.
Nobody deserves to be assaulted at the hands of a police officer or to be disrespected by a police officer or a prosecutor. And I have prosecuted police officers in the past — I don’t care whether you’re wearing a uniform or not, if you break the law, I don’t care who you are.
I think people have to be treated more compassionately in society, we have enough problems as it is, and sometimes I think if you just treat people with respect it doesn’t solve everything, but sometimes it just makes things a lot easier.
The reasons why people are assaulted is irrelevant — if somebody does assault somebody who may be homeless or may have mental illness or whatever it is — they’re going to be prosecuted. Nobody has a license to harm anybody.
What do you see as The D.A.’s role in addressing the opioid crisis?
Larry Krasner: It’s possibly the biggest challenge that we all have right now, because there are three people a day who die in Philadelphia from opiate, opioid, fentanyl, heroin fatal overdose. It’s 1200 a year, up from 900 a year. The number of fatalities, match up nicely with the increase in pills: There’s been a 400% increase in pills over the last ten years and the number of fatalities from heroin, opiates, opioids, fentanyl is coming up in a corresponding way.
It’s such a crisis that we have to be willing to go after big Pharma in whatever ways are legally available. We have to be willing to go after dentists and doctors, pharmacists, pain centers, because they are giving away these pills like they’re skittles. And that’s the problem. The problem is the pills. The health system is supposed to not do harm — that’s their oath. They’re doing tremendous harm, and they’re doing it for profit. So, the response can’t be that simplistic war on drugs response [of] we’re going to take the drug dealer on the corner (who’s behavior is criminal and who should be in trouble for it), [but] the response has to be comprehensive. We’ve got to start at the top [and] we have to be open to almost any solution that has the potential to save lives.
So, we have to be willing to look at things like supervised injection sites. We’ve got to clean up Gurney Street, but we also have to be willing to look at the places where people can not die of an overdose and can get access to treatment, so when they’re ready to accept it, they can stop doing this. People can get off of heroin after 2 years or 20, but they can’t if they die. And if they’re dying because they don’t have a safe injection site — a supervised injection site — that is inexcusable to me.
The Center for Disease Control has found that for people who take a prescription of 10 days or more, 20% will become addicted, and the psychological research indicates addiction begins on day two. There are alternatives. And one of those alternatives is cannabis. Cannabis kills no one. It is not, according to the scientific research, physiologically addictive. It is a remedy often used for severe pain, and we actually see in places like Colorado that once cannabis was readily available, they had a 25% reduction in fatal overdoses from opiates and opioids. If you’re going to lose 1200 people in a year and you could save 300 of them by having ready access to cannabis, and you could simultaneously tax the heck out of it and come up with a sea of money that you could use to support public schools, that’s where we ought to be going.
We have to be open to better solutions, even if those solutions are supervised injection sites, [and] ready access to cannabis. It’s just inexcusable to have people dying when they don’t have to die, from something that was induced for profit by big Pharma.
Beth Grossman: First of all, it has to be working with everybody instead of a silo approach. [In contrast to] when I started in the 1990’s, what I really like [now] is that all agencies are actually working together. Because it’s a public health crisis. I know that there’s a couple pilot programs, one where somebody — say they’re stopped with possession — they’re given the opportunity to get pre-arrest treatment. I’m fine with that. With [the] understanding that people are going to relapse, it’s not going to do any good to send somebody up on State Road because they have hot urine. How are we going to deal with this and also with what happened that caused the relapse? I think we need to look at it from a more public health and treatment standpoint — and also with heavy duty education in the schools, as early as middle school, to talk about what heroin can do to the brain chemistry. It’s one out of ten people, the first time they try heroin, their chemistry allows them to get hooked, and that’s it.
This does not excuse dealers (I was Acting Chief over Dangerous Drug Offender unit for a little bit) as well as also going after the doctors who are running the pill mills — they make millions, hand over fist — prescribing this stuff, and it’s just ridiculous. I will not excuse dealers. I have no problem going after those that are writing the scripts and those who are bringing in heroin that’s laced with fentanyl; but for those who are using with addiction problems, I have no problem looking at it and treating it as an illness, because that’s what it is. Nobody sets out and says they want to be an addict.
How will you ensure that fair and unbiased trails are a right for all Philadelphians?
Larry Krasner: One thing that I would like to do is something that Seth Williams refused to do. At the very beginning of his first term, he was approached by researchers who had done studies on institutional bias in other cities, and they asked him if he could do one in Philadelphia. And he said no. I would say yes. Let people come in.
I’m open to having people who are experts in this field and who have done it before come and study the District Attorney’s office, because we have to have trust in the justice system or we’re not even going to be able to solve crimes. This is one of the big problems. You have an awful lot of not guiltys in the system, and probably the vast majority of them are correct, but there’s some percent that is simply the result of the fact that Philadelphia juries — which are very intelligent — don’t trust Philadelphia police, and they don’t trust Philadelphia prosecutors. And their distrust is legitimate. So, if you can restore faith that the police are fair, that the prosecutors are fair, and if you can follow procedures that really are fair, you’re going to be able to do things like get information on unsolved shootings from neighbors. You’re also going to be able to get convictions from people who believe the system has integrity, so they’re willing to find someone guilty when the evidence is there.
Beth Grossman: A couple things: One — proper training of D.A.s to make sure that we know all the laws. You have to put people on the jury appropriately, not for race not for gender or any other type of reasons.
The other thing is doing some implicit bias training. I know that there’s different groups in Philadelphia that will actually come in and they’ll interview people to see if you have unconscious implicit bias. I think that’s something worth looking in to. Sometimes it’s difficult to look in the mirror; but sometimes it’s needed, especially if you’re dealing with people’s liberties. So, I think that’s something that’s very important.
[In] training new D.A.s I would like returning citizens [who are] African American males to talk to new prosecutors. African American males — young men — are probably the most vulnerable members of society for violence and for ending up into the system, which does nobody any good. So, if elected, I would actually like to hire as the Deputy of the Division and then as the Chief of the Juvenile Unit, I would like it to be African American males. I think that is absolutely important.
How will your policies as D.A. Influence the incarceration rate for Philadelphia?
Larry Krasner: It’s a major goal to lower incarceration. In Pennsylvania, the level of incarceration since the 1970’s has increased 700%. Philadelphia has the unique distinction of being not only the poorest of the ten largest cities but also the most incarcerated of the ten largest cities. So, it really should be a big goal for a lot of reasons.
One reason it should be a big goal is that it costs $40,000 a year to keep someone in jail — we spend $300 million on State Road, and God knows how much money is spent state wide on Philadelphians who are put into state custody. Make no mistake, there’s a certain number of people that have to be in jail. We have 6% of the population that commits 60% of the crime; but there’s also 94% of the criminal population that does not commit 60% of the crimes. A lot of those people don’t need a conviction at all or don’t need custody at all. And some of the ones that get five years it turns out would have better outcomes if they only did two years. Because a certain amount of custody can have a useful effect, and then when you double and triple it, it can break somebody in half so that their family connections are gone, their chance of employment is even less, the school that they went to which is called jail — where they teach you crimes — was effective.
One way you do it is you push for the end of cash bail. That is the kind of goal that takes years, but I believe huge gains can be made so you don’t have people who are poor and have committed non-serious offenses, sitting for months and months and months at tax payers’ expense. Another thing you can do is you can stop prosecuting stupid cases. You can take them out of trial rooms and put them into different types of diversion or simply reject the case completely. What that does is it speeds up the process of resolving the important cases: the robberies, and rapes, and shootings, and homicides, the serious domestic violence. Just speeding up those cases would have a huge effect on reducing prison populations.
There are several other aspects to it: treating addiction as what it is — an illness rather than a crime — empties jail cells. Not getting all focused on whether someone has positive urine for marijuana while on probation or parole would empty a lot of jail cells.
Beth Grossman: I think we have to look at [alternatives to] sentencing: Is this person appropriate for probation, [is there] some diversion program that’s going to keep people from going to jail? I’m all for that, because I know that jail has — even if you’re held for 48 hours — such a negative consequence on so many different things, that as prosecutors you’re not even aware of.
Obviously, you look at the crime. I don’t want somebody who has committed grave acts against another, that’s one thing. But for the daily things such as the drug stuff, property crimes, things of that nature — again it’s based on the individual, but — If there’s some way to succeed in having an individual get him or herself right through probation, through non-incarceration, I’m certainly fine with that. I don’t take joy in having people sent to prison — that’s not what a prosecutor should do. And I will give credit where credit’s due — like Seth Williams, used to say, it’s “sentencing smart.” You have to take a lot of things in perspective including what will be the outcome on the person who’s accused or convicted on his or her life.
When I came in and was trained, we were never ever taught, and it never came up, that there’s another human being across the aisle, that there’s an ‘accused’ sitting there, but he or she is a person with needs, with family. That only came to me with maturity and with being in the D.A.’s office for a long time. What I would actually like to do for new D.A.s is to have a training component with returning citizens to come and speak about what their experiences were like in prison, and also in going through the justice system.
What can you do as D.A. to support those who are reentering society after being incarcerated to prevent them from ending up on the street or back in prison?
Larry Krasner: The law has moved in the direction of allowing people to erase very minor convictions from their records either immediately after a few years. Hopefully the law will keep going in that direction, and I would support that. No, I’m not in favor of erasing a conviction for a serious offense, but it would be good if we could completely erase convictions for non-serious offenses so that they don’t impede employment.
Second thing is we need jobs. I mean the reality is we do have “ban the box” which is a good program, but above all else, you’re going to have to have people who have jobs and are willing to take employees who may have had issues in the past, including criminal justice issues. There are people who believe that just because you had a conviction, that does not mean you are a terrible person for life. There are some people who are just fundamentally dangerous and a menace. But there are a lot more people whose misconduct is situational, and for a lot of them, that can be turned around if they just have the opportunity to make a good living.
Beth Grossman: I’m a very firm and very, very ardent supporter of reentry programs, because I think that when people have served his or her debt to society, folks need a net that will get them back into the right tracks. To me it’s win-win because I would rather have people not return to the system at all and not recidivate.
I would rather support everybody to get employment. I have no issues with ban the box. Also, there is a bill that is pending in Harrisburg — if it’s been a certain amount of time since conviction that people’s records will be sealed. You shouldn’t be marked for life by one bad incident, and it’s only going to benefit the individual and society as a whole if he or she can be a productive member of society. So, if there is any legislation or however else I can be supportive, I have no issue with that. Whether it comes from city council or whether it comes from Harrisburg that’s something that I would be very, very supportive of.
What is the D.A.’s role in enforcing landlord-tenant law? What will you do as D.A. to address housing discrimination against those who have experienced homelessness?
Larry Krasner: The district attorney’s office prosecutes crimes — discrimination is, in and of itself, not a crime; it is something that can be addressed in the law but that would be in civil court, not in criminal court. But there are some things landlords do that are crimes — When a landlord goes in your apartment, steals your lease, rips it up, puts your stuff on the sidewalk and follows none of the legal processes, that’s trespass. That might even be burglary, because there was a crime he committed in that space, and that crime was the destruction of evidence. Landlords who engage in these practices repeatedly are criminals, and I am open to prosecuting them for that criminal behavior.
Beth Grossman: Our role is to enforce the criminal laws, but if there is something that a landlord is doing that rises to a criminal offense, and especially if there is one landlord who seems to be doing this a lot, I have no problem going after that person. I would like to have a very strong community engagement unit [and] if somebody calls with an issue like this, make sure that my folks are trained to know where to tell people to go. As part of my community engagement, then I would also like to have a mechanism to reach out to the homeless community — which I had never thought about doing before.
There is a second-degree misdemeanor called public nuisance, and I never used it, because it needs to be fleshed out. But what I would like to do is see if I could get Harrisburg at some point — it was on my wish list for years — to get it amended. Some of it would really address those bad landlords. I would love to be able to build a case, whether it is Licensing and Inspections violations, or just building a case against a landlord, because once you start to arrest people and it gets a little bit of publicity, people start to come in line.
I would actually like to use that community engagement to go after bad landlords — that’s something that has been on my wish list for a really long time — because people get away with such murder, and they just make money hand over fist, and they don’t care about their properties.
How would your D.A. Office act towards people arrested for protesting?
Larry Krasner: I’m a huge believer in First Amendment rights. I spent 25 plus years defending people who were protesting, almost always for free. Not necessarily because I agreed with every single thing every single group said, but because I view free speech as being absolutely crucial to a free society at many levels. It’s how we achieve social change; it’s also how we avoid violence…So that’s why way back I represented ACT UP. I represented Prevention Point. I represented Kensington Welfare Rights Union, when they were doing protests around homelessness.
So, I have these rich and wonderful memories representing people who have engaged in free speech activity. And respect it. That does not mean you can take a hammer to a window and call that free speech, cause that’s not free speech. That does not mean that you can physically harm other people and call that free speech, cause it’s not free speech. Free speech activity is fundamentally nonviolent. And that’s why I have a very high tolerance for it. So, we will maintain that line. We’re going to protect free speech vigorously, but we are also going to know what free speech is and is not. And when behavior is violent, and when it destroys property, it’s going to be called what it is.
Beth Grossman: A First Amendment right is one of our greatest protected rights — as long as you are not vandalizing something, as long as you are not making terroristic threats, as long as you are not physically assaulting someone or committing property crime — have at it. If a permit is needed, obtain it, but I don’t believe in arresting people for civil disobedience or protest. But if you do commit a crime during the course of that, then there are repercussions. That is simple as it gets.
How do you view Philadelphia’s status as a Sanctuary City? How would your role as D.A. Affect this status?
Larry Krasner: I support Sanctuary City status. I am pretty fluent in Spanish and have represented a lot of Spanish-speaking clients for many years so I’ve been watching the issues that apply to undocumented immigrants for many years. One of the biggest problems we have is that they’re easy victims, because the people who would perpetrate crimes on them know that it’s risky for them to go to police for support. Well Donald Trump is making it a lot riskier. In fact, he’s making it more or less impossible to go for support. You can’t have a society where there’s a group of people who are unable to go to police to protect them if they are being robbed or they are being raped.
The D.A.’s function is not the same function as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE regulates immigration. ICE deports people. The D.A. doesn’t do any of that, and I think a crucial role for the D.A. is to make sure that victims of crime who are not here with proper legal status are protected so that they’re able to protect themselves through the legal system. I also think that there is no reason to assist Donald Trump’s agenda of mass deportation. The Feds would simply like to have a lot of local law enforcement with no authorization and no money do their work. I’m not going to do that.
Beth Grossman: As District Attorney, I don’t want anybody to be a victim of crime in the City and County of Philadelphia regardless of what their status is. I don’t care. It is not the role of the District Attorney’s office to enforce and effectuate ICE policies, that’s not what we do.
If they’re about to release someone who has served time for a violent first or second-degree felony and he or she is about to be returned, probably to the same community, but ICE wishes to deport them, I have no problems as long as proper paperwork is gotten, because I don’t want somebody who is a danger to the community to be returned to it. But beyond that, we have never questioned what the status is of a victim or witness of a crime; it is just not relevant.
[An undocumented status] is not a state crime so it’s not anything that we deal with or would prosecute or would investigate. My only concern is anybody who violates a criminal state in Philadelphia and anybody who is victimized. I also don’t want those who are undocumented here and are victimized, to feel victimized twice if they’re afraid to report things to the police. We don’t give ICE information about a victim — we don’t ask. And if somebody approaches the D.A.’s office and asks us to do it from ICE regarding victims or witnesses, I’m not doing it.
What would you say to readers of One Step Away about why they should support you?
Larry Krasner: You should vote. You have no power if you don’t vote. The biggest problem with democracy has always been when there’s a group of people who don’t vote or can’t vote, and therefore laws are written about them, things are done to them, by people who are not members of that group. People who suffer from addiction need to vote. People who have been to jail need to vote. People who have mental health issues need to vote. That is the only way that you’re ever going to have the resources you need to help with the concerns that you have and also the resources that will prevent crime. So, what I would say is vote, vote, vote, vote, and vote!
Beth Grossman: I would like the readers to know that I believe everybody counts — it doesn’t matter whether you have an address attached to you or not. Wherever you live, whether a home or not, you are still a resident of Philadelphia, and everybody is entitled to the same protections as one another. Address matters not. What matters is your safety. I learned from this meeting [that] as part of a community engagement unit, I would actually like to meet with the homeless community on a regular basis to hear about your concerns. Because we’re only going to come to solutions if we collaborate together and if you are a public servant you serve everyone which includes those who are homeless. If elected I just seek to serve everybody, fairly and appropriately — we all count.