Can a predominantly white state legislature overturn the votes of a predominantly Black city? Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s district attorney, was elected in 2017 on a reform agenda and has faced a GOP backlash ever since. This October, on the last day of business before the 2022 midterms, Martina White, a Republican state representative, filed articles for impeachment. If the initiative wins a majority in the GOP-dominated state House, Krasner will have to stand trial in the Senate. How has the GOP weaponized the issue of violence to smear criminal justice reform and the Democrats pushing for change? And what is being done about the disregard being shown to Black voters who voted heavily for the DA and largely continue to support Krasner’s work? Charles D. Ellison, executive producer and host of Reality Check on WURD, and Sara Lomax-Reese, cofounder of URL Media, joined me for this conversation.
LK: Philadelphia is the poorest of the 10 largest cities. It is chronically violent. It is a place where there has been a massive disinvestment in the neighborhoods, where there is the most bloodshed, and a massive disinvestment in the support that they need at every level, in terms of economic development, education, and everything else. One of the things I say to them is, thank you for your support. When I ran in 2021, and we won with a massive landslide all over the city, the highest levels of support were coming from the areas most affected by gun violence. It is the people who have been the most victimized who are saying, “We need a new approach.” We need to have robust enforcement that is modern and scientific, and frankly, no law enforcement official in Philadelphia or in Pennsylvania has spent more time advocating for improvements in forensic science and things that will help us solve these crimes. We also need a real investment in prevention, which has never happened in Philadelphia or in this country in the way that it should.
LF: One of the things that you have done is deprioritize the prosecution of nonviolent drug crimes and prostitution. How does that affect public safety?
LK: We prosecute all types of drug dealing, and we prosecute all types of drug dealing vigorously. What we have deprioritized is the prosecution and conviction of people who possess drugs, with the exception of marijuana. We prosecute them as well, but we make every effort to get them treatment, counseling, and resources. We view them as victims, and we don’t see value in making it harder for them to become employed on the basis of convictions for possession of a small amount of drugs. Similarly with prostitution, which is what the word is in Pennsylvania for the offense, it’s really sex work. We do not prosecute sex workers. What they need is public health support. In my mind, they are fundamentally victims. These are people who, not in all cases, but in many cases are dealing with psychological issues. They’re often dealing with trauma. It is sometimes rape trauma. They’re dealing with poverty. They’re in very difficult situations, and by criminalizing what they are doing, you make them vulnerable victims for stranglers, for serial killers, for serial rapists. If someone is a sex worker, they’re trying to get out of that life, and they go to get a job, they aren’t going to get it with three prostitution convictions. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s obvious that we need a public health solution for drug use. It’s been incredibly successful in Portugal, for example. I’m talking about use, not sales. They vigorously prosecute sales, and so do we, but it’s been incredibly successful. A doctor-based model that does not put people in handcuffs and jail cells has resulted in an 80 percent rate of people recovering from opioid use so serious that they’re living on the street. That’s what we need here.
LK: One of the ironies of this impeachment effort upstate is these red-flag-waving Republicans who are all of a sudden worried about Philadelphians, even though they’ve done nothing to make us safer with reasonable gun regulation. They’ve done nothing to fund our public schools. They view us as a source of taxes, yet they want to erase our votes. What those people are up to has nothing to do with stopping crime in Philadelphia. They don’t care about stopping crime in Philadelphia, or they would’ve said, “Well, let’s examine our own counties. Let’s make our own constituents safe.” They said the exact opposite. They said that all they wanted to do was study one county, one city, the one that has the most Democrats, the one that turns out the biggest vote, and the one that is the most diverse. There’s no question nationally that the pandemic correlates with enormous spikes in gun violence all over the country and that it has affected us here.
I’ve had a community activist say that he coached football for many years at a particular area in Philadelphia, which is a high-crime area, and that he is seeing the same kids he coached in football, once football shut down, not only shooting at each other but keeping score on how many people they shoot and kill on the other team, meaning the other group, or the other gang that they’re up against. The manifestations of this kind of shutdown, in education shutdown, and [shutdown of] constructive public-prevention-type activity are severe, and the lesson is how we should have always been investing more heavily in that prevention. That path forward is updated, modern, and scientific enforcement, but the path forward is also a deep reconsideration of how valuable our limited prevention efforts were, and a commitment that we’re not going to just have organized sports again. We’re going to invest more heavily in it. We’re not just going to have public education. We’re going to put the kind of money into it, so that a Philadelphia student isn’t funded 50 percent of what a student is in a suburb right across the county line.
SLR: What do you think your personal experience with this impeachment process means for democracy and for other progressive DAs around the country, when a Republican-led and controlled legislature like Pennsylvania’s is stepping into Philadelphia to say, “We want to overturn the people’s choice.” Philadelphia is almost 43 percent African American, and Harrisburg is a very red- and white-controlled majority.
LK: Their tactic now is not even so much to win elections, because they’re not winning elections. Their tactic is to undo those elections or to do things in between election cycles. What they’re doing in Philly with the district attorney’s office is something they’re doing around the country. They can’t beat George Gascon when he runs for DA in Los Angeles, because the people want him and they want his policies. So what do they do? They try to recall. They take whatever tools there are in that state. A recall election is very good for rich people who can get a few signatures, so they can get another election in the middle of somebody’s term, and they can do it when there’s a very low turnout, and then maybe they can get away with putting that person outside of office, but they’re using other tactics in other places. Bogus investigations like the one that they’re doing here in Philadelphia. Knowing that I have done nothing that is an impeachable offense, nothing criminal, nothing corrupt. If you look to Arlington, Virginia; Fairfax County, Virginia, you’ll see very similar tactics with reform prosecutors. They’re trying to do this to Kim Foxx, who is a well-known and very capable reform prosecutor in Chicago, Illinois. She went up for a reelection two years ago against the son of a billionaire who spent five times as much money as her. She won by 20 percent, and what do we do next? We start talking about impeachment, because, obviously, “We can’t beat Kim in an election, can we?” This issue brings out reluctant voters in a way other issues don’t, because it gives people who don’t really trust politics or government, for good reason, a reason to come out.
You start to understand what a profound threat reform in criminal justice is to Republicans. In Philly, this is a direct effort to erase the votes of hundreds of thousands of people, most of them Black and brown and young and broke people. If they get away with it with the district attorney, they can erase the votes for mayor, president of the city council, or for any other elected official. When the party that cannot win in a particular place is finding ways to erase its votes, this is the end of democracy. This is a gut punch at democracy, and it’s incredibly dangerous.