It isn’t often that a district attorney’s race draws as much national attention as the one in Philadelphia did last fall. While much of the country was bemoaning the new national rhetoric that indicated a sharp departure from America’s centrist values on crime and punishment, Philadelphia was singing a different tune.
Larry Krasner, a longtime defense attorney with a background in civil rights law, was elected the city’s chief prosecutor on a bold, unapologetically progressive platform that included ending cash bail, reducing use of stop-and-frisk and in his words “trading jails … and death row for schools.” Wednesday, in Philadelphia, he underscored his commitment to criminal and juvenile justice reform and ushered in a new era of prosecutorial progressivism by appointing Robert L. Listenbee, former administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the Obama administration, and former chief of the Juvenile Unit at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, as his first assistant district attorney.
The appointment of an attorney with an almost 30-year career not only as a member of the public defense bar, but also as a champion of reform initiatives, might come as a surprise elsewhere, but not in the new Krasner administration. Larry Krasner is one of very few unabashedly progressive prosecutors in the country who speaks frankly about structural inequities that result in the ravaging of black and brown communities, police misconduct and the need for a just society that seeks an appropriate balance between the rights and concerns of the accused and those of individuals and communities they are charged with having harmed. His rhetoric, and his early actions as DA, stand in sharp contrast to a long history of “tough on crime” approaches championed by four-term Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham that were largely perpetuated by her successors.
Shock and awe
Krasner’s departure from that approach to prosecution earned him the ire of many in the law enforcement community and — to no one’s surprise — resulted in the endorsement of his Republican opponent, Beth Grossman, by the Philadelphia Inquirer and the influential Fraternal Order of Police. Nevertheless, and in part due to well-coordinated grassroots organizing efforts, Krasner emerged the winner on Nov. 7.
Shortly after assuming office, he sent a strong signal of his sincerity about overhauling the prosecutors’ office by firing 31 assistant DAs and reassigning others, many of whom were viewed as holdovers of the old-style prosecutorial mindset of the Lynne Abraham days.
After the initial shock-and-awe effect that the firings created, many in the Philadelphia criminal justice community waited to see what would happen next. Letting go of some of the old guard was a clear indication of what Larry Krasner did not want as he revamped the DA’s office, but what remained to be seen was what he did want. Bob Listenbee’s appointment as first assistant DA is as clear an indication as any that what Larry Krasner may want is to transform not only one city’s criminal justice landscape, but — with Philadelphia as a model — to demonstrate the viability of prosecutorial progressivism.
Bob Listenbee is himself no stranger to doing old business in a new way. His collaborative approach to the administration of justice has long been recognized in Philadelphia and on the national stage. For over a decade, while at the Defender Association, he worked hand-in-hand with former First Assistant District Attorney George Mosee to reform the way Philadelphia’s justice system dealt with thorny issues like disproportionate minority contact, expungements for juvenile defendants and diversion for low-level offenses.
That work earned him numerous accolades including the Defender of Children’s Rights Award from the National Juvenile Defender Center (2017), the Outstanding Service Award from the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs (2017), a Special Recognition Award for Exemplary Service in Juvenile Justice Reform from the Philadelphia Coalition for Victim Advocacy (2011) and the Champion for Change Award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (2011).
At the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), Bob Listenbee championed halting youth violence, ending the school-to-prison pipeline and reducing the involvement of girls, Hispanic youth and LGBTQ-GNC (gender-nonconforming) youth in the nation’s juvenile justice system. He also partnered with the Department of Education to enhance correctional education in residential placement programs and worked with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to establish programs to expunge juvenile records and eliminate barriers to successful reentry.
He played a central role in the U.S. Attorney General’s Defending Childhood Initiative and co-chaired the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children’s Exposure to Violence. Following his tenure at OJJDP, he returned to Philadelphia and assumed the role of Visiting Fellow at the Stoneleigh Foundation, where he continued to work on reform efforts by strengthening collaboration among Philadelphia’s youth-serving systems.
While some may be tempted to dismiss this new orientation of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office as an ideological over-correction, or a knee-jerk reaction to the draconian policies of the past, they do so at their own peril. Something is changing in criminal and juvenile justice, and the way we prosecute is the final frontier.
Corrections officials, probation, police and defenders all now have robust reform frameworks — whether they choose to implement them or not — but prosecutors continue to lag behind. With the Krasner administration’s stated commitments to data-driven decision-making, to community and youth engagement, to partnership with foundations and to the use of discretion consistent with what the evidence shows is necessary to protect communities and reduce recidivism, Philadelphia is well-positioned not only to enter this frontier, but to lead the charge toward it.
Marie N. Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.