Few district attorneys in recent history have had a first term as consequential as Larry Krasner’s. With his victory in this month’s primary race in Philadelphia, he proved that reimagining criminal justice can be a political winner.
Other aspiring district attorneys hoping to follow his example would be wise to notice how Krasner has focused not only on mass incarceration and its devastating impact for Black and Brown communities, but also on its less-discussed counterpart: mass supervision.
At least 4.4 million Americans are on probation or parole, more than double the incarcerated population. That’s one in 54 adults nationwide. The smallest infraction while on supervision — even something as small as missing a phone call with a supervision agent — can mean time behind bars.
Rapper Meek Mill faced up to four years in prison for popping an illegal wheelie on a motorbike while on probation.
More than half of all prison admissions in the U.S. are driven by these kinds of supervision violations, which in many cases are the result of people falling prey to onerous, unflinching requirements and conditions that can hang over their heads for years.
Imagine trying to live a successful, productive life while under constant supervision and threat of punishment — with no room for error.
Like most of the criminal justice system, the harms of mass supervision are disproportionately inflicted on Black neighborhoods. Black Americans account for nearly one-third of all people on probation and parole, despite being only 13 percent of the U.S. population.
Conditions were especially dire in Pennsylvania. Before Krasner took office, a staggering one-in-34 adults were living under state supervision, the third highest statewide rate. In Philadelphia alone, that statistic was one-in-22 adults, making it the most supervised big city in the United States.
To put those numbers in context, Philadelphia had one-fifth the population of New York City, but three times as many residents living under supervision. And well over half of the people incarcerated in county jail were there due to an alleged violation of probation or parole conditions.
In order to remove this criminal justice tripwire, Krasner announced two key policies. In 2018 he urged his prosecutors to seek shorter probation sentences, and in 2019 he placed specific caps on the length of any supervision sentence proposed by prosecutors.
Last month, his office released a report documenting the impact of these two changes: The number of people on supervision fell from 48,000 to fewer than 28,000. Supervision lengths for felonies fell from an average of 48 months to 36 months, and from 12 months to 9 months for misdemeanors.
Racial disparities significantly narrowed. The gap between the length of white and Black supervision sentences fell from nearly 11 months to five months. Finally, there was no measurable change in recidivism.
Shrinking the Justice Footprint
By overhauling the way his office handled probation and parole, Krasner demonstrated how prosecutors’ offices can unilaterally work to shrink the footprint of the criminal justice system, and that they can do so without undermining community safety.
That’s why Arnold Ventures supports research and policy analysis in the Philadelphia Office of the District Attorney.
But the full benefits of Krasner’s reforms haven’t developed yet.
Over time, reducing the number of people under supervision will narrow the pipeline into prisons and lower the public cost of mass incarceration. Up to $4 million could be saved in state and local dollars over five years through the reduction of supervision services, according to Krasner’s office, and up to $40 million in reduced prison populations over the past two years alone.
These recovered funds can and should be reinvested in education, poverty reduction, and reintegration support for people leaving the justice system in order to reduce crime and arrests, creating a beneficial cycle that moves us away from the age of mass incarceration and toward something new.
Krasner’s fight against mass supervision didn’t have much support from other members of the criminal justice system. He faced opposition from some judges in Philadelphia, and had to act where state lawmakers would not.
So if the Philadelphia district attorney can achieve these results in his city, no other prosecutor in this country has reason to hold back from pursuing similar results in their own jurisdictions.
It is time for prosecutors across the nation to stop waiting for judges, legislators or supervision offices to lead on ending mass supervision, and finally begin to take responsibility for the decisions within their control.
Krasner has shown them that it can be done.
Dylan Hayre and Becky Silber are directors of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures, a Houston-based philanthropy with offices in New York City and Washington DC that is dedicated to maximizing opportunity and minimizing injustice.