Sunday, June 13

‘People want this’: in the fight to end mass incarceration in the United States | Documentary film

TOMerica may be the land of the free, but it also has the higher incarceration rate in the world. Its jails contain more people than big cities like Philadelphia or Dallas and express the racism of the system in concrete and steel. But the solutions do not necessarily reside in the White House.

“People think that criminal policy in the United States is set by the federal government,” says the filmmaker. Yoni brook. “But in reality, when you think about mass incarceration, there are over 2,000 district attorneys, state prosecutors, and local prosecutors with enormous discretion in deciding what is a crime and what is not. We really need to think about who we want in those offices. “

Brook and his co-director, Ted passonThey have made a series of documentaries about one of those district attorneys in his hometown of Philadelphia. Larry Krasner is part of a new wave of “progressive prosecutors” who are winning elections in Boston, Los Angeles and other major cities with a mandate to reform criminal justice from within.

Krasner’s constant but fierce assault on the status quo, including elements of the police fiercely resistant to change, is tracked by Philly DA, which ended on PBS Tuesday night and is streaming on your website. He is seen addressing hearings, community meetings and city councils, receiving criticism from conservatives who say he is pushing too hard and radicals who say he is not pushing enough.

An activist seeking to abolish the cash bail system – who disproportionately keeps poor defendants confined before trial – tells Krasner in a meeting shown in the final episode: “I think we’ve been patient as a task force understanding all the different challenges of us as crazy leftists. or whatever, but we want to say that we are not going to take off the table the idea of ​​saying publicly that we do not think they have done enough. “

Krasner seems unfazed by such criticism from the left or right. The 60-year-old tells The Guardian: “I have had thick skin for a long time, but I can tell that it gets thicker.”

It is proven in episode three by the case of Robert Wilson, a black police officer murdered while attempting to thwart an armed robbery. Two black brothers plead guilty to the murder. John McNesby from a local police union responds: “If there is ever a classic case for a death penalty case, this is it.” After all, one of Krasner’s predecessors, Lynne Abraham, became known as “the deadliest district attorney in the country” due to her aggressive pursuit of capital punishment.

But there is a new and more liberal sheriff in town. Krasner has always opposed the death penalty, which was used 17 times in America just last year. He served on a jury in one of those cases when he was 23 years old, before going to law school, where he carefully studied the punishment. He later became a civil rights attorney who defended people in death penalty cases.

“It is quite an experience to be in front of a jury when the purpose of the prosecutor is to kill his client,” he explains by phone. “That is a great moment. So it’s a topic that I’ve thought a lot about and it’s a topic that I’m very sorry about and that particular episode covers a scenario where basically all of my predecessors would have sought the death penalty for reasons that were at least as political as they. they were philosophical. “

He adds: “I did what was not politically normal at all, but which I thought was justice, and that is that we did not pursue the death penalty in a case that involved the murder of a policeman during a robbery. It was a concrete decision on a concrete case.

“It was a decision that reflected, among other things, that the two different mothers [of Wilson’s two sons] they did not support the death penalty. But their position was not the traditional one and therefore we were really against the police union who tried to use the whole scene in a macabre way for their own politics. “

A still from Philadelphia DA
Photograph: PBS

The film raises the classic question of whether all idealists are destined, as the much-quoted phrase goes, to campaign in poetry and rule in prose. Krasner was seen as an outside candidate in 2017, when Philadelphia had one of the highest incarceration rates of any major city, but he withdrew. a landslide victory with great support from African American voters. Do you feel that you have been able to stay true to your principles or were there times when you bowed to pragmatism?

“I think that, in many ways, the reason we got so much resistance in the first term is because we did what we said we would do,” he responds firmly. “Doing what you say you will do does not necessarily mean that you will always be successful.

“We said we were going to cut the mass incarceration; we cut future years of incarceration in half. We said we were going to cut mass supervision on probation and parole; we cut it into two thirds. I can list some more enormous achievements, including the exoneration of 20 people at this time, almost all completely innocent, who are in stark contrast to our predecessors.

“But we also said that we were going to push against the cash bail system. We lobbied against the cash bail system, but eventually realized that it will take state legislation to eliminate the use of cash bail in order to eliminate it completely because we don’t control it. The deposit is not made by us; the bail is set by the judges. “

Voters evidently agree that Krasner kept his promises and his soul. Last month, despite the police union putting all its weight and money against him, he won outright in a Democratic primary election seen as proof of the sustainability of progressive prosecutors,

“So even where there is frustration, the voters understood and Philadelphia understood, as long as it has tried to do the right thing, it has tried to be fair, it has not simply compromised for some kind of political expediency, they respect that.

“I think the true story of our first term is that our opponents attacked us with flamethrowers because we did what we said we would do, we achieved a lot and therefore they felt it necessary to turn our backs because we were achieving what we said we would do. “.

No one wielded a flamethrower angrier than John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), Lodge 5. But Krasner is careful to distinguish this union, which he says has always been run by conservative white men (“people who came out at a time when the police were dealing of brutality and racism ”), of the police department as a whole, which is more representative of the racial diversity of Philadelphia than it used to be.

“There are some deeply concerning white supremacist elements in the police department and they are coddled, if not encouraged, by the head of the police union, a guy named John McNesby, who also referred to Black Lives Matter as’a herd of rabid animals”. I feel like our relationship with grassroots police officers is improving and with some of them it’s pretty good. “

A still from Philadelphia DA
Photograph: PBS

Krasner, who insists he has no ambitions for a higher office, is optimistic about the future of criminal justice reform. “Number one, 10% of the United States have now elected and re-elected, in many cases, a progressive prosecutor. That’s a lot and they have generally done it in the big cities that have an inordinate level of control over mass incarceration.

“So just as in Philadelphia we were able to curb mass incarceration and cut the number of years in jail and prison in our county court in half, those kinds of things are happening in places like Chicago and Los Angeles. Angels and Brooklyn, and it will continue to happen as more and more DAs are chosen.

“The second thing is that progressive prosecutors are winning elections like crazy and we are not winning them because we are magnetically wonderful. We are winning them because people want this. There is a good argument that the most effective political party in the United States is not the Democrats or the Republicans who win and lose something; they are progressive prosecutors. “

By investing in prevention rather than surveillance, Krasner argues, history will come to view America’s addiction to locking people up as a sinister anomaly with origins in Richard Nixon. cynical politics, structural racism and the war on drugs. “Everyone is going to look back on the period of mass incarceration as the radical experiment that failed.

“They are going to look at the decade that preceded it and the decades that, hopefully, we are launching as normal and with an appropriate level of incarceration in which we see a decrease in crime, a decrease in the number of people in jail, because ‘I’ve reinvested in the things that really prevent crime and make us safer. “

And he has no regrets that he allowed “a couple of tough guys from Philadelphia” to film his successes and failures for the sake of transparency and demystifying the process for other outsiders who might consider running for district attorney.

Passon, 40, became curious about the criminal justice system as a young man after three family members, including his brother, were locked up at different times. He had heard of Krasner’s name in the city, but never imagined that the activist lawyer could win an election.

“He shocked the city, including us, when he won and immediately the story got so much bigger. Well now we know if you can actually do any of this and why or why not. “

Brook, 38, says: “You could watch the show and to a certain extent you would think we had planned how this was going to go in terms of the characters and access to the office. But the truth is that Larry Krasner comes in, turns on the lights and we are there with him and there was so much chaos and tumult in the office.

“All these prosecutors who had worked there for 30 years had just been vilified in the campaign by Larry Krasner. They had been his opponent in court for 30 years and he walks in and there are two guys with cameras with him. Up was down. Down was up. And so in that moment, as filmmakers and journalists, we told ourselves that we will keep showing up until someone tells us not to.

“I really believe that Larry Krasner is a storyteller at heart and I think he knows that one of the greatest tools he has in his office is the bully’s pulpit in order to change the narrative of what people perceive as crime and punishment in Philadelphia. . , and maybe the nation. “

But he adds frankly: “Sometimes when you ask him and his team about the show, sometimes they project an aura of knowing what they were doing, but that’s silly. He didn’t know how to be a district attorney. We didn’t even know how to make a movie about this. So, to be honest, all people learned together. “

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