‘They dig in like ticks’: A new doc shows the vexing work of criminal justice reform
“Philly D.A.,” an eight-part docuseries beginning Tuesday as part of PBS’ “Independent Lens,” follows Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner in his crusade to remake the culture and practices of his office. It’s a timely piece, as the country reckons with police violence and mass incarceration, and a number of progressive district attorneys, including L.A.’s George Gascón, have been elected in hopes of transforming the justice system into something more equitable and humane and less liable to perpetuate crime — not merely to punish it.
But given the complexity of the subject, the inertia of institutions and the polarized state of ... everything, as well as the limitations of even an eight-hour film, it is also almost inevitably a frustrating one, hopeful and dispiriting by turns.
A long shot elected in a landslide, Krasner came to the job in 2018 after three decades as a defense attorney, specializing in civil rights cases. (He sued the Philadelphia police department several dozen times.) He decorates his new office with a poster of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks in mug shots and a blow-up of the cover of Time’s 2011 Person of the Year issue, “The Protestor.”
His agenda includes minimizing cash bail, declining to pursue criminal charges for marijuana possession and sex work, and reducing the length of sentences and probation. As a new broom to sweep his office clean, he embraces firing: He fires some 30 people right off the bat and later tells Boston district attorney-elect Rachael Rollins: “I should have asked more to go. They dig in like ticks; they undermine you at every turn.” He will seem sensible to some, radical to others, on television as in Philadelphia, the most incarcerated city in the world’s most incarcerated nation.
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Created by Ted Passon, Yoni Brook and Nicole Salazar, the series, good-looking throughout, can be editorially dramatic, with quick cuts and short scenes and an overabundance of musical underscoring. Although there is an impressive degree of access, from Krasner’s first day in office onward, doors are often closed while the camera waits in the hallway for a report — a fly on the wall outside the room where people are talking.
While it allows Krasner’s critics, in and out of the department, to have their say, the series clearly starts with the presumption that change is necessary and that Krasner is on the right track — though it certainly leaves open the question of how effective he might be in bringing about change. (That is perhaps the matter for a sequel.) Although title cards provide a few facts or figures, it’s hard to really tell how his project is faring, apart from the noisy pushback from the Fraternal Order of Police and citizens who find him soft on crime.
Supporters are less in evidence. Even a victory, as when a drug organization is taken down, is used to illustrate the department’s inability to control the message, its adversarial relationship with the press. Though conflict makes for a story, of course, some workaday context would be useful, especially given a very large office — some 600 people, around half of them prosecutors — dealing with tens of thousands of cases a year.
Taken purely as television, “Philly D.A.” resembles less the serial docuseries that have taken the world by storm of late than it does a highly episodic CBS-style legal drama: “Crusading Defense Attorney Becomes District Attorney to Change the System from Within” is a show I feel I might have already seen. (Krasner’s team is as colorful and distinct as if they had been written and not just recruited.)
The log lines write themselves: A case is jeopardized when homicide detectives search a cellphone without a warrant, then lie about it (“They did it literally under a surveillance camera,”says an assistant district attorney, “very good quality”). The family of a police officer killed in the line of duty presses for the death penalty. A convict sentenced to life as a teenager (a practice later declared unconstitutional) hopes to see his sentence reduced enough to leave jail. Larry attempts to open the country’s first safe-injection site to combat an epidemic of overdoses.
The series is most convincing when the political becomes personal. It’s one thing to hear about a neighborhood known as the “Walmart of heroin”; it’s another to hear what this means to the people whose lives it impacts. Indeed, the strongest, most emotionally resonant passages in “Philly D.A.,” though they address and are affected by Krasner’s platform, take place out in the world among the citizenry. For that matter, Krasner comes into sharper focus when he is out of the office, interacting with the public. (Or, too briefly, at home, with wife Judge Lisa Rau, who is funny and warm and has the measure of him.)
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Krasner doesn’t gladly suffer fools, a category that to his mind includes people who can’t see what is evident to him, or who won’t look at the data he has helpfully compiled, or who believe he cares more about criminals than victims, and other negative narratives promoted by the police union and its central casting president, John McNesby.
At the same time, even some of his staunchest allies would like him to understand that “data” and “science” are words that don’t necessarily resonate with someone who only wants to get the junkies off her porch. If the series has a long arc, it’s in Krasner’s coming to understand he might need to listen more and talk less, and generally come across as less condescending and more empathetic. “I’m not so perfect at retail politics,” he admits, acknowledging the “chip on his shoulder” and a taste for confrontation. “The challenge for me is not to be me.”
If the show has a breakout star — and we talk about documentaries in such terms nowadays — and a tonic to its more despairing developments (or lack of them), it’s not Krasner or anyone in his office, but 21-year-old formerly incarcerated activist LaTonya Myers. Myers’ story dominates the fourth episode, the theme of which is probation reform.
Even as she struggles to terminate her probation — “I want to be judged off my progress and not my past,” she says — and avoid the minor infractions that might put her back in jail, she is recruited to work as a “bail navigator” for the Defender Association of Philadelphia (the public defenders office, basically). With her jacket and tie and porkpie hat and unselfconscious way of speaking, she’s a vivid character in a moment of pressure and transition. One could easily build an eight-episode docuseries just around her.
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
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