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After a Career Suing Cops, This Lawyer Wants to Be Philly’s Next District Attorney

Mother Jones

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Civil rights attorney Larry Krasner has spent his career standing up to cops. A former public defender who’s no stranger to pro bono work, he’s defended Black Lives Matter protesters, ACT UP alums, the Arch Street United Methodist Church pastors, Grannies for Peace, and Occupy Philly activists.

So he hardly seems like someone who’d want to assume the mantle of one of America’s top prosecutor jobs—for one thing, Krasner has no formal political experience. But as he watched the usual suspects throwing their hats in the ring for Philadelphia’s 2017 district attorney’s race, the 56-year-old felt like it was time to try and change things from within. On February 8, standing alongside activists and organizers from groups he’d previously defended, he announced his campaign. Just a few months later, as the city gears up for its primary on May 16, Krasner’s being hailed as an unlikely favorite and a radical outsider who just might have the gumption—and the support—to shake up Philadelphia’s punitive culture and send a message to the country that mass incarceration is a failed strategy.

Nowhere is the reality of “tough on crime” more evident than Philadelphia. Former DA Lynne Abraham, winner of four straight terms from 1991 to 2010, was known both as “America’s Deadliest Prosecutor” and the “Queen of Death” for her fervid pursuit of executions, over 100 in total. Former mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo is among the most notorious cops in American history, once claiming he’d “make Attila the Hun look like a faggot” while on the mayoral campaign trail. That legacy has helped give the City of Brotherly Love the highest incarceration rate of the 10 largest cities in the United States, twice the national average. (It’s also the poorest, with one of the lowest-rated public school systems to boot.)

Criminal justice crusaders saw some hope when Democrat Seth Williams, a self-identified progressive reformer, took the job as the city’s first African American DA in 2010. He claimed he’d champion reasonable reforms to chip away at mass incarceration. But since then, Williams has managed to run up a rap sheet that evinces an almost cartoonish level of corruption. He has been under FBI investigation since August 2015 and on the receiving end of the largest fine ever imposed by the Philadelphia Board of Ethics for gift taking and failure to disclose contributions in excess of $175,000. He fought for the death penalty and prosecuted a man who’d been cleared of murder by DNA evidence. On February 10, Williams announced he would not seek a third term. Then on March 21, he was indicted on 23 counts of corruption and bribery-related charges. His alleged misbehavior, said an FBI special agent, was “brazen and wide-ranging, as is the idea that a district attorney would so cavalierly trade on elected office for financial gain.”

Into the void have sprung seven candidates, all jockeying for the Democratic nomination ahead of the May primary and the right to square off with Republican candidate Beth Grossman. Philadelphia is a deep blue stronghold, so the winner of the primary will likely cruise in the general election. Krasner’s campaign might be best described as an insurgency, and one that has drawn the national spotlight.

Born in St. Louis, Krasner has made Philadelphia home since age nine. He comes from a household that relied on disability checks to make ends meet, and he’s a veteran of the city’s public school system. After attending the University of Chicago, he went on to law school at Stanford, where he “accumulated a skyscraper-sized pile of student loans.” Upon graduation, he forewent prosecutor jobs to become a public defender in Philadelphia, which he considers his hometown. “I didn’t want to be a prosecutor,” he says, because “Philly had a culture that was in love with the death penalty.”

In 1992, when then-President George H.W. Bush came to Philadelphia, ACT UP, the famous activist group striving to end the AIDS crisis, marched a coffin full of fake ashes through the city, protesting perceived inaction by the president. “The coffin tipped, the ashes flew; I think the cops thought they were going to get HIV,” Krasner recalls. “The cops’ reaction was hyper violent—they cracked one person’s skull, made many of them bleed.” At that point, five years out of law school, he decided to dedicate himself to “representing people who were making the world a better place.”

In the years since, Krasner has filed more than 75 civil rights cases against police officers, and gotten 800 narcotics convictions thrown out after exposing two officers to have perjured themselves. Of the 420 protesters arrested at the 2012 Republican National Convention, Krasner won an acquittal rate of 99 percent over four years. Needless to say, these aren’t the usual credentials for someone running for a position sardonically referred to as “top cop.” When I ask him about that term, he bristles. As a district attorney, he says, “you’re supposed to seek justice in an evenhanded way—so if you know cops are dirty, you prosecute the cops.”

Against the backdrop of a new federal administration that wants to toughen rules on prosecuting crime, Krasner instead strongly believes that “mass incarceration hasn’t worked. It hasn’t made us safer; it hasn’t made us freer.” He wants to abolish the death penalty—Philly is the only city in the Northeast that still has it. He’s pledged to refuse to bring cases that have resulted from illegal stop-and-frisk actions. In Pennsylvania, which has more juveniles on life sentences without the possibility of parole than any other state in the country, Krasner has promised thorough resentencing. Rather than plastering uniform 35-year sentences on those juveniles, as the DA’s office has recommended, Krasner has vowed to revisit each case individually, considering things like childhood trauma in reducing sentences, because “this one-size-fits-all sentencing is appalling.”

Krasner also wants to end cash bail and reform civil forfeiture. Over half the people held in prisons in Philadelphia have not been convicted, but, unable to afford bail, have no choice but to await their trial behind bars. Krasner wants to implement alternatives for nonviolent offenders, like diverting addicts straight to treatment facilities, a practice known as “sweat bail.” When it comes to civil asset forfeiture, he says the city should not take anything unless there’s a conviction, and if assets are seized, they should go to the city’s general fund, not back to the DA’s office, as the program is currently structured.

The ideas seem to have resonated. Krasner has ripped up the playbook on incremental reforms, accelerating initiatives that looked politically impossible just a few years back. “Here’s what’s behind the sharp left turn in Philly’s DA race,” reads a recent article in Philly Mag profiling Krasner’s campaign. In fact, all seven Democratic candidates are now campaigning as reformers. National activist groups have hailed Philadelphia’s DA race as a historic one, a rebuke of the zero-tolerance approach championed by the current Oval Office.

“After decades of ‘wars’ on crime and drugs, public sentiment is now shifting toward a more expansive view of crime and justice,” says Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that works on criminal justice reform. “Fortunately, a growing number of prosecutors view themselves as part of that movement.” Indeed, Krasner is not alone. 2016 saw reform candidates defeat hardline prosecutors in DA races in Florida, Louisiana, and Illinois. After a poor showing in the 2016 election cycle at the federal level, the Democratic Party has been refocusing its energy on local elections, and district attorneys’ offices have become an unlikely seat of progressive reform. Prosecutors are elected in all but four states, around 2,400 seats in total, a major political post that often runs uncontested.

Krasner is heartened to see criminal justice reform become so popular in his city’s race but remains skeptical of some of the rhetoric. Many of his competitors are former prosecutors, insiders, or assistant DAs. “The only other candidate who said he would unconditionally oppose the death penalty was supervising death penalties six months ago,” Krasner says, boasting that he’s been “walking the walk for 30 years.”

National groups are taking notice. Our Revolution, the progressive political action group associated with Bernie Sanders, endorsed Krasner. So, too, did Color of Change PAC, as well as major union groups Unite Here, PASNAP, and 1199C. He banked the endorsement of pop singer John Legend. And billionaire George Soros invested $1.45 million—a stunning amount for a local election—in a super-PAC called Philadelphia Justice and Public Safety that backs Krasner. That move brought extended scrutiny from his competitors, who have now started running negative attack ads aiming to identify Krasner as unsympathetic to victims.

Notably absent from that list of endorsements is the Fraternal Order of Police, Philadelphia’s police union, which was clashing with Krasner even before his campaign took off. When former Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy was involved in a brawl with two off-duty Philly police officers, Krasner represented him, successfully getting all charges against him dropped. That led FOP President John McNesby to describe Krasner’s candidacy as “hilarious.” “He’s not laughing now,” chuckles Krasner. In March, the FOP endorsed Rich Negrin.

Still, Krasner believes that rank-and-file police will welcome his candidacy, if he can win. He points to his close relationships with multiple commissioners and the officers whose children he’s represented. He says he believes that the police will appreciate working with a DA who doesn’t spend his time courting a run for governor. The DA’s office in Philadelphia has often served as a launch pad for political careers at the state and national levels. But Krasner seems to view a stint as the district attorney as a culmination of his life’s work, rather than a stepping stone: “My chair after the DA’s chair,” he says, “will be a beach chair.”

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After a Career Suing Cops, This Lawyer Wants to Be Philly’s Next District Attorney

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LAPD Adopts New Policy: De-Escalate First, Shoot Later

Mother Jones

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This is from the LA Times yesterday:

The Los Angeles Police Commission voted Tuesday to require officers to try, whenever possible, to defuse tense encounters before firing their guns — a policy shift that marks a significant milestone in the board’s attempts to curb shootings by police.

Wait. This is new? This hasn’t always been LAPD policy? Apparently not, and apparently not much of anywhere else, either:

As criticism of policing flared across the country, particularly after deadly shootings by officers, law enforcement agencies looked to de-escalation as a way to help restore public trust. Like the LAPD, other departments have emphasized the approach in training and policies.

The Seattle Police Department requires officers to attempt de-escalation strategies, such as trying to calm someone down verbally or calling a mental health unit to the scene. Santa Monica police have similar rules in place, telling officers to try to “slow down, reduce the intensity or stabilize the situation” to minimize the need to use force.

….The focus on de-escalation represents a broader shift in law enforcement, said Samuel Walker, a retired criminal justice professor and expert in police accountability. Now, he said, there’s an understanding that officers can shape how an encounter plays out. “This is absolutely the right thing to do,” he added.

This is especially important in Los Angeles:

African Americans continue to represent a disproportionate number of the people shot at by officers. Nearly a third of the people shot at last year were black — a 7% increase from 2015. Black people make up about 9% of the city’s population but 40% of homicide victims and 43% of violent crime suspects, the report noted.

The LAPD also topped a list of big-city agencies with the highest number of deadly shootings by officers. Police in Los Angeles fatally shot more people than officers in Chicago, New York, Houston and Philadelphia did, the report said. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department came in second, with 15 deadly shootings.

Go ahead and call me naive, but I would have figured that de-escalation was standard protocol everywhere. Not always followed in practice, of course, but at least theoretically what cops are supposed to do. But apparently not. It sounds like it started to catch on after Ferguson, and is only now being adopted as official policy in a few places.

Better late than never, I suppose, but I wonder what’s stopping this from being universally adopted? What’s the downside?

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LAPD Adopts New Policy: De-Escalate First, Shoot Later

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Trump Can Pull Money From His Businesses Whenever He Wants—Without Ever Telling Us

Mother Jones

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This story originally appeared on ProPublica.

When President Donald Trump placed his businesses in a trust upon entering the White House, he put his sons in charge and claimed to distance himself from his sprawling empire. “I hope at the end of eight years I’ll come back and say, ‘Oh you did a good job,'” Trump said at a January 11 press conference. Trump’s lawyer explained that the president “was completely isolating himself from his business interests.”

The setup has long been slammed as insufficient, far short of the full divestment that many ethics experts say is needed to avoid conflicts of interest. A small phrase buried deep in a set of recently released letters between the Trump Organization and the government shows just how little separation there actually is.

Trump can draw money from his more than 400 businesses, at any time, without disclosing it.

The previously unreported changes to a trust document, signed on February 10, stipulate that it “shall distribute net income or principal to Donald J. Trump at his request” or whenever his son and longtime attorney “deem appropriate.” That can include everything from profits to the underlying assets, such as the businesses themselves.

Here is the new clause, from page 161:

“It’s incredibly broad language,” said Frederick J. Tansill, a family estate and trust attorney outside Washington, DC, who reviewed the documents for ProPublica.

There is nothing requiring Trump to disclose when he takes profits from the trust, which could go directly into his bank or brokerage account. That’s because both the trust and Trump Organization are privately held. The only people who know the details of the Trump trust’s finances are its trustees, Trump’s son Donald Jr., and Allen Weisselberg, the company’s chief financial officer. Trump’s other son, Eric, has been listed as an adviser to the trust, according to this revised document.

The Trump Organization did not answer detailed questions about the trust. In a statement to ProPublica about the companies’ corporate structures, a Trump Organization spokeswoman, Amanda Miller, said, “President Trump believed it was important to create multiple layers of approval for major actions and key business decision” (Sic. Read the full statement.)

There is a chance Trump will list his profits in his next federal financial disclosure, in May 2018, but the form doesn’t require it. The surest way to see what profits Trump is taking would be the release of his tax returns—which hasn’t happened. Income has to be reported to the IRS, whether it comes from a trust or someplace else.

“For tax purposes, it’s as if the trust doesn’t exist at all,” said Steven Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. “It’s just an entity on paper, nothing more.”

It’s not clear why Trump added the language to the trust document. His original trust document, which ProPublica obtained in January, designated Trump as the “exclusive beneficiary.” It did not include any restrictions on when Trump could get the money.

Taking profits regularly could benefit Trump in a variety of ways. It would give the president yet more details on the ongoing finances of his businesses. Trump’s son Eric recently told Forbes he plans to update his father on the company regularly, though the revised trust document states that the trustees “shall not provide any report to Donald J. Trump on the holdings and sources of income of the Trust.”

Trump could also simply find the income helpful, even as president. The trust document shows that Trump has “broad rights to the trust principal and income to support him as necessary,” Tansill said.

The General Services Administration released the document last week when it approved the Trump Organization’s plan to address conflicts involving the Trump International Hotel in DC. (The GSA, which handles procurement for the government, owns the land and Trump has a 60-year lease for the building.) In response to criticism about Trump being, in effect, both tenant and landlord, he agreed to not take any profits from the hotel while in office.

Profits will go into a separate company account, which can only be used for hotel upkeep, improvements or debt payments. Watchdog groups have derided that deal as insufficient, noting that pouring profits back into the hotel will make it more valuable in the long term.

With Trump’s hundreds of other businesses, including golf courses, hotels and branding deals, profits from each go to a holding company and eventually into Trump’s trust. Other corporate documents we obtained, reflecting changes made after Trump’s January 20 inauguration, show how money flows from a golf club outside Philadelphia to the president’s trust.

There soon could be many more Trump family businesses.

The Trump Organization has recently touted plans to open hotels across the country, including a second one in Washington, DC. “It’s full steam ahead,” Trump Hotel CEO Eric Danziger said recently. “It’s in the Trump boys’ DNA.”

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Trump Can Pull Money From His Businesses Whenever He Wants—Without Ever Telling Us

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To reduce obesity and depression, we need more nature in our lives.

U.S. cities are packed with about 5 million medium-sized buildings — schools, churches, community centers, apartment buildings. Most use way more energy than they should. Many also have poor airflow and dirty, out-of-date heating and electrical systems. Those conditions contribute to high inner-city asthma rates and other health concerns.

“These buildings are actually making children sick,” says Donnel Baird, who grew up in such a place. His parents, immigrants from Guyana, raised their kids in a one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, relying on a cooking stove for heat. Baird eventually moved to the South and then attended Duke University, before returning to New York as a community organizer in 2008.

In 2013, Baird launched BlocPower, which provides engineering and financial know-how to retrofit city buildings. The technical part is cool: Engineers survey structures with sensors and smartphone apps, figuring out the best ways to reduce energy use, like replacing oil boilers with solar hot water. But the financing is critical; BlocPower builds the case for each project and connects owners with lenders. It has already retrofitted more than 500 buildings in New York and is expanding into Chicago, Philadelphia, and Atlanta.

“The biggest way for us to reduce carbon emissions right now,” Baird says, “is efficiency.”


Meet all the fixers on this year’s Grist 50.

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To reduce obesity and depression, we need more nature in our lives.

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Trump Plans to Slash the Most Effective Social Program in History

Mother Jones

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Reuters tells us what to expect from President Trump’s budget:

Under the proposal, which was sent to the EPA this week, grants to states for lead cleanup would be cut 30 percent to $9.8 million, according to the source, who read the document to Reuters.

What an idiot. This is hardly the biggest issue in his budget, and I’ll grant that the current allocation for lead cleanup is so pitiful that a 30 percent cut hardly matters. On principle, though, it’s obvious that Mick Mulvaney’s crew just saw a line item in their spreadsheet and slashed it without knowing anything about it. Nice work, folks. You get a gold star.

By coincidence, the Washington Post ran a piece yesterday that’s all about lead—though the reporter didn’t realize it:

In dozens of one-on-one meetings every week, a lawyer retained by the city of Philadelphia summons parents whose children have just been jailed, pulls out his calculator and hands them more bad news: a bill for their kids’ incarceration….He is one agent of a deeply entrenched social policy that took root across the country in the 1970s and ’80s. The guiding principle was simple: States, counties and cities believed that parents were shedding responsibility for their delinquent children and expecting the government to pick up the tab.

.…”It was a very different time, when too many parents frequently wanted to essentially ‘dump’ their adolescent children on juvenile courts when they found them unruly, ungovernable, uncontrollable,” Linda O’Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, said of the era decades ago when the laws were implemented.

Regardless of what you think about this policy, there’s a reason it “took root” in the ’70s and ’80s: Kids of that era spent their early childhoods surrounded by lead fumes from automobiles, so they contracted lead poisoning in massive numbers. By the time they were teenagers they really were “unruly, ungovernable, uncontrollable,” and parents didn’t know what to do.

As it turns out, there was nothing they could do. The damage was done. But nobody knew that, so we put in place pointless laws based on the premise that if only they worked harder, parents could keep their kids under control. In reality, the only policy that ended up working came from Trump’s hated Environmental Protection Agency, which banned leaded gasoline and put an end to our national epidemic of lead poisoning.

But the old laws are still around, even though they don’t work, while the EPA’s lead cleanup program is being slashed, even though it does work. Welcome to America.

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Trump Plans to Slash the Most Effective Social Program in History

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