Search About Subscribe Donate
It’s Giving Tuesday!

Today only, a generous group of supporters is tripling all donations to The Marshall Project. Help us reach our goal of 200 new members before the end of the day!

The Frame

“Philly D.A.”: Larry Krasner’s First Term, Under a Lens

A documentary examines the Philadelphia prosecutor’s efforts to bring about criminal justice reform — and the pushback he’s received along the way.

A still from the documentary, "Philly D.A.", of Philadelphia District Attorney, Larry Krasner, with his team.
A still from the documentary, "Philly D.A.", of Philadelphia District Attorney, Larry Krasner, with his team.

In 2018, Philadelphia’s newly elected District Attorney Larry Krasner asked a question at his first policy meeting: “Is there a way we can find out every pending marijuana possession case?”

A few minutes later, he made a sweeping decision to drop all cases for marijuana possession. He also announced he would no longer prosecute sex workers if they had fewer than two convictions. These moves signaled a new era under Krasner, a former civil rights lawyer who had sued the city’s police department 75 times and had come into office promising a wave of progressive policies.

The docu-series “Philly D.A.,” — an Independent Lens original series for PBS directed by Ted Passon, Yoni Brook and Nicole Salazar — explores Krasner's first term and the obstacles he and his team have faced in attempting to reform how crime is prosecuted in one of America’s most populous cities. It also chronicles the pushback his policies received from some Philadelphia residents and the police. The series illuminates the inner workings of the D.A.'s office and provides moving examples of people entangled in the criminal justice system.

The 8-part docu-series, filmed in a cinema verité style, does not unfold chronologically. Each episode goes in-depth on a single issue, including topics like cash bail, probation, the death penalty, juvenile detention, police brutality, the opioid crisis and gun violence.

The most personal episodes are 4 and 5. Episode 4 introduces LaTonya “T” Myers, a parole activist who gets a job at the Defender Association of Philadelphia as a bail navigator. The episode follows Myers as she juggles her new job and the mental toll of a 10-year parole sentence. Episode 5 follows Joseph Chamberlain — who was sentenced to life-without-parole at 16 years old — as he struggles with anxiety over his parole meeting and what it would mean to be free.

LaTonya "T" Myers shares her story and why she’s passionate about probation reform.

The docu-series details how Krasner’s approach differs from that of previous district attorneys. In the first episode, Krasner fires 31 staffers and hires activists, criminologists and defense attorneys — many of whom have been affected by the criminal justice system themselves — to take those spots. The firings were controversial and interpreted by some as personal attacks because some of the prosecutors had worked on cases where Krasner was the defense attorney. Krasner justified the firings by saying that one of the ideas he was elected on was to bring about culture change. “What it means is you have to see whether the people who are in the office are consistent with the mission,” said Krasner during a press conference about the firings. “The coach gets to pick the team.”

Under Krasner, old and new prosecutors are seen at odds with each other. The second episode shows Lisa Harvey, the juvenile unit chief, clashing with Robert Listenbee, who was appointed as the first assistant district attorney in 2018. Listenbee argues that the reason Philadelphia has a large number of children in juvenile detention is because of prosecutors’ “tough on crime” approach. In contrast, Harvey, who has been in the juvenile office for 13 years and weighs responsibility to victims more heavily, believes that ‘“you don’t have to destroy the system to get the result you want.”

Even with Krasner winning in a landslide in 2017, he faced political headwinds. His biggest opponent has been the police union, Philadelphia’s chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police (F.O.P.). Some officers felt that Krasner’s policy of reducing the number of people in jails would increase crime. The tension rises throughout the series and culminates with John McNesby, the president of Philadelphia’s F.O.P., meeting with former President Donald Trump to call attention to their disagreements with Krasner.

The series ends before the COVID-19 pandemic and last summer’s nationwide protests that called for reform in policing. While viewers don’t get an inside look into how these issues affected Krasner and his team, last month he defeated his Democratic primary challenger Carlos Vega in the Philadelphia D.A. race. Vega, one of the prosecutors Krasner fired at the beginning of his term, was supported by the police union. Krasner now goes on to face Republican challenger Charles Peruto Jr. in November, and Philadelphians will decide if the Krasner experiment gets to see another four years.

“Philly D.A.” provides an incisive view into the challenges facing Krasner’s office, while humanizing people who experience incarceration.

“Philly D.A.” is available to stream in PBS App and PBS Passport until June 30.

Before you go...

Can you help us make a difference?

The Marshall Project produces journalism that makes an impact. Our investigation into violence using police dogs prompted departments from Indiana to Louisiana to change their policies. Thousands of cameras were installed in the infamous Attica prison after we revealed the extent of violent abuse by guards. Municipalities stopped charging parents for their kids’ incarceration because of our reporting. Supreme Court justices have cited us, along with incarcerated people acting as their own lawyers.

The type of reporting we practice takes persistence, skill and, above all, time, which is why we need your support. Thanks to generous readers like you, The Marshall Project has already raised nearly $25,000 of our $100,000 goal during our year-end campaign. The funds we raise now are going to be essential to sustaining this important work. We’ve still got a long way to go to reach our goal, though.

To help us get there, a generous group of donors will be matching all new donations. They’ve pledged $100,000 in matching funds and are matching donations dollar-for-dollar until our December 31 deadline. Will you join The Marshall Project today and double the impact of your donation?


Zayrha Rodriguez Zayrha Rodriguez is a 2020 graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she major in photojournalism with a minor in history. Her work has been recognized by the Hearst Journalism Awards and College Photographer of the Year. She is currently based in South Florida.