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Larry Krasner and Beth Grossman talk homelessness and policing

One Step Away, Philly's street paper. October 17, 2017 Category: FeaturedLongPeople
A team of One Step Away vendors had the opportunity to sit down with both candidates running for the office of district attorney of Philadelphia.

In this spring’s primary, progressive civil rights and criminal defense attorney, Larry Krasner, won in a hotly contested race for the Democratic nomination, in which he united a diverse coalition of organizations and helped mobilize a historically high voter turnout.

Beth Grossman — who served as an assistant district attorney for over 20 years under Lynne Abraham and Seth Williams, and has managed the Dangerous Drug Offender Unit and the Public Nuisance Task Force — ran uncontested in the Republican primary.

Philadelphia’s next chief prosecutor will inherit a crowded prison system, an opioid crisis growing in severity and an office seeking to regain public trust after former D.A. Williams was outed on corruption charges. One Step Away vendors Eric, Tammy, Randall and Jeff created a list of questions on some of the issues that matter most to us. The candidate’s responses are edited for length and clarity.

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7.

Being homeless is not a crime, but public space laws have been used to criminalize people experiencing homelessness. What would be your approach to enforcing laws that disproportionately affect people living on the streets?

Larry Krasner: I spent a semester of my third year in law school working for the Coalition for the Homeless in New York so I have a certain amount of interest and background with these issues. Even after I became an attorney in 1987, I was a public defender first, and I ended up representing a lot of homeless people.

I am not interested in convicting homeless people for being homeless. I am not interested in convicting poor people for being poor. There are occasions when the criminal justice system can be used as a form of leverage to get people who need to do things to do things. And the district attorney has a lot of discretion:

Will I bring charges here — yes or no? If I bring charges, what charges will I bring — big ones or little ones? If I bring these charges and they’re scheduled for court do I want bail that would keep them in jail — yes or no? If we’re going to court am I actually going to try to get a conviction, or am I just going to drop this case because what I needed to accomplish by having the arrest is over? Am I going to go for diversion, meaning some kind of program, where if this homeless person follows through the case will be dropped, as a way of getting that person treatment for addiction or as a way of getting that person into an environment where there will be either treatment or medication or both for mental health issues?

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I do see a responsibility to act, but I do not see good reasons to vigorously pursue convictions, I would much rather use the system to support and help try to solve the problem than to make the problem worse.


Beth Grossman: It is not a crime. It could be an economic issue, it could involve other things. I would rather work with people just to make sure that if people want it they’re getting services and support that they need. I think that’s really important, because as I like to say, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” And I think everybody needs to be treated compassionately, with empathy, and I think that’s important. And I sometimes think it’s a matter of collaboration and working with a religious organization, or service provider, or those who provide food. You don’t arrest your way out of problems.

And I just get concerned — just from a public health perspective — in inclement weather. That’s where I get concerned with things. Everyone has a right to refuse help as well. You just have to be careful with that. [I] also understand that a lot of times, things involve mental health issues. I think that the police are getting better trained in dealing with folks who may have some issues, whether its autism or just how they react differently with mental health issues.

My oath or my duty — whether you’re the D.A. or assistant D.A. — is to uphold the law, and if people don’t know it, to educate others. You don’t arrest people for homelessness. You just don’t. And if it’s something that needs attention or if it’s an individual who might be creating issues, then you reach out. You reach out to the police; you reach out to service providers, and you figure it out to do. You’re dealing with individuals usually on an individual basis — you can’t ‘cookie cutter’ things. You don’t rubber stamp your way in the criminal justice system. I’ve never practiced that way, and I will not — would not — run an office that way either.

How will you ensure that homeless individuals, people in recovery and those with mental illnesses are adequately protected by enforcement officers? How will you ensure that officers are adequately prepared to work with these vulnerable populations?

Larry Krasner: That’s a great question. The problem, of course, is that the D.A.’s office does not run the Police Department, and it also has no control over private security. The solution is to try to work with the police commissioner, who I believe is a fairly enlightened, modern, smart person who doesn’t want his police officers to be unduly nasty, unkind, malicious toward people in those categories.

It’s not OK to be violent towards people just because you are frustrated with them. And it’s not OK to invent rules that don’t exist for everybody else to impose on homeless people.

One of the things I see all the time is that you have either law enforcement or you have private security whose very first move when they’re dealing with someone who is homeless, possibly waking up early in the morning outside of a shop, is they start cursing at them — very first thing. And then there’s a kick. Someone is just waking up, and you’re starting this off by cursing and kicking. That should not go on.

There should be a real effort at every level to bring about a different way of law enforcement engaging with homeless people that is much more oriented towards providing assistance than it is towards treating them like they’re scum. Same thing should be happening with private security. But police and private security also need to be aware that the law applies to them.

There has to be one standard for everybody whether you’ve got a uniform or you’re sleeping on the sidewalk.


Beth Grossman: I believe that goes to training and better training. We have to train our thinking as police officers and as prosecutors too. A lot has changed since I started in 1993. Under Commissioner [Richard] Ross, I think training is getting better for law enforcement to respond with those who are recovering who might also have mental health issues.

Nobody deserves to be assaulted at the hands of a police officer or to be disrespected by a police officer or a prosecutor. And I have prosecuted police officers in the past — I don’t care whether you’re wearing a uniform or not, if you break the law, I don’t care who you are.

I think people have to be treated more compassionately in society, we have enough problems as it is, and sometimes I think if you just treat people with respect it doesn’t solve everything, but sometimes it just makes things a lot easier.

The reasons why people are assaulted is irrelevant — if somebody does assault somebody who may be homeless or may have mental illness or whatever it is — they’re going to be prosecuted. Nobody has a license to harm anybody.

What is the D.A.’s role in enforcing landlord-tenant law? What will you do as D.A. to address housing discrimination against those who have experienced homelessness?

Larry Krasner: The district attorney’s office prosecutes crimes — discrimination is, in and of itself, not a crime; it is something that can be addressed in the law but that would be in civil court, not in criminal court. But there are some things landlords do that are crimes — when a landlord goes in your apartment, steals your lease, rips it up, puts your stuff on the sidewalk and follows none of the legal processes, that’s trespass. That might even be burglary, because there was a crime he committed in that space, and that crime was the destruction of evidence. Landlords who engage in these practices repeatedly are criminals, and I am open to prosecuting them for that criminal behavior.


Beth Grossman: Our role is to enforce the criminal laws, but if there is something that a landlord is doing that rises to a criminal offense, and especially if there is one landlord who seems to be doing this a lot, I have no problem going after that person. I would like to have a very strong community engagement unit [and] if somebody calls with an issue like this, make sure that my folks are trained to know where to tell people to go. As part of my community engagement, then I would also like to have a mechanism to reach out to the homeless community — which I had never thought about doing before.

There is a second-degree misdemeanor called public nuisance, and I never used it, because it needs to be fleshed out. But what I would like to do is see if I could get Harrisburg at some point — it was on my wish list for years — to get it amended. Some of it would really address those bad landlords. I would love to be able to build a case, whether it is Licensing and Inspections violations, or just building a case against a landlord, because once you start to arrest people and it gets a little bit of publicity, people start to come in line.

I would actually like to use that community engagement to go after bad landlords — that’s something that has been on my wish list for a really long time — because people get away with such murder, and they just make money hand over fist, and they don’t care about their properties.

Read the full interview in the print edition of One Step Away — and take OSA’s community engagement survey to help shape their work in 2018.

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