When Larry Krasner was elected as Philadelphia district attorney four years ago, he promised to bring “transformational change” to an office—and to a criminal justice system—that, he said, “has systematically picked on poor people, primarily black and brown people.”
“If you, like us, believe it’s time to end the death penalty,” the veteran civil rights lawyer told the crowd that packed into the city’s William Way LGBT Community Center. “If you believe it’s time to end mass incarceration. If you believe it’s time to stop making prisoners of poor people by using cash bail. If you are sick and tired of government stealing grandma’s house when she didn’t do anything wrong. And if you have no intention of helping Trump’s immigration agenda. We hope to hear from you.”
Krasner heard immediately, as his multiracial, multiethnic supporters erupted in cheers that echoed across the country. Declaring victory in his own race and in the national campaign to change the approach of prosecutors, he announced, “This is what a movement looks like.”
The movement is bigger now. Progressive prosecutors have been elected in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin, Chicago, Boston, and dozens of other cities—in many cases with a boost from billionaire George Soros and national advocates for criminal justice reform. More may be elected this year in contests such as the race for Manhattan district attorney. But the progress that’s been made, in Philadelphia and all those other cities, can only continue if the advocates for “transformational change” retain control of DA offices.
It is for that reason that Krasner’s reelection campaign, which faces its biggest test in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, is a political test that has local and national ramifications. If Krasner wins the primary, which is tantamount to victory in the overwhelmingly Democratic city, the assessment will be that this movement is here to stay.
If Krasner loses, however, foes of bold reforms will be emboldened as they promote a backlash politics based on the fearmongering claim that progressive prosecutors have made cities less safe. And cautious Democrats who have blamed progressives in general, and “Defund the Police” messaging in particular, for the party’s setbacks in 2020 congressional races will, almost certainly, use the result to argue for retrenchment.
The stakes are so high because Krasner has been so outspoken in his criticism of police violence and prosecutorial misconduct, and so ardent in advancing reforms that have made his office a national model for reformers.
Krasner has shaken up the powerful DA’s office in the nation’s sixth largest city—in such dramatic fashion that the story has been chronicled in an acclaimed PBS documentary series, Philly D.A. He fired 31 prosecutors in his first week in office. He eliminated cash bail for people accused of many misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. He announced that his office would no longer seek criminal charges against Philadelphians caught with marijuana. He initiated a review of sentences from past prosecutions, with an eye toward reducing jail terms. His Conviction Integrity Unit exonerated a score of innocent people who’d been jailed by his predecessors. He sued Big Pharma companies to make them take responsibility for harm caused by the opioid epidemic. He asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to declare the death penalty unconstitutional. And, when Trump tried to use federal troops to thwart Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Krasner pushed back against what he decried as “the Stormtrooper tactics that have been used by federal law enforcement.”
He even threatened to jail federal law enforcement officers who assaulted demonstrators, saying, “My dad volunteered and served in World War II to fight fascism, like most of my uncles, so we would not have an American president brutalizing and kidnapping Americans for exercising their constitutional rights and trying to make America a better place, which is what patriots do.”
That kind of talk made Krasner a folk hero for criminal justice reformers and civil libertarians. But it also earned him powerful enemies, including Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, Philadelphia’s police union. “Our officers have given us carte blanche to spend whatever we need to spend to be able to remove this cancer from the District Attorney’s Office,” FOP president John McNesby told The Philadelphia Inquirer, which this week reported that the FOP has “hoisted billboards and flooded mailboxes and airwaves in a bid to oust the incumbent. It’s helping fund a political action committee formed by retired cops that is the top spender in the race. It’s blaming Krasner for the soaring violence in the city—despite the fact that Philadelphia’s crime surge is in line with national trends. It’s even mobilizing Republicans to change their voter registration to Democratic so they can back [challenger Carlos] Vega in the May 18 primary.”
To highlight its argument that Krasner is “soft on crime,” the union—which represents 14,000 officers and retirees—has been parking a “Mister Softee” ice cream truck in front of the DA’s office.
The focus on crime is at the heart of the assault on Krasner. The DA counters the attacks by noting, as he did in a debate this week, “In 50 major US cities last year the increase in gun violence was 42 percent. The increase in Philly is 40 percent, which is terrible. But what is happening is not unique to Philly.”
What’s really happening, argues Krasner, is that “the FOP and their candidate—my opponent—are weaponizing a national tragedy.”
Vega, a veteran prosecutor who was fired by the DA’s office when Krasner took charge, is also backed by former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell—who hired the lawyer as a prosecutor when he served as DA in the 1980s. The Rendell endorsement serves as a reminder that there are many Democrats who continue to resist the sort of reforms that Krasner and other progressive prosecutors are implementing. Indeed, the powerful Philadelphia City Democratic Committee refused to endorse Krasner for a second term, in a rare snub of a party incumbent.
More than two dozen Democratic ward organizations are backing Krasner, however, as are key unions such as Philadelphia’s AFL-CIO Council, SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, and District 1199C. Krasner also has the endorsement of the Guardian Civic League, the Philadelphia chapter of the National Black Police Association, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and prominent elected officials such as state Senator Vincent Hughes and Philadelphia City Council member Helen Gym.
But Vega has gained the support of 15 ward organizations and a number of more conservative unions. So this is a real race. And it has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. In 2017, Krasner’s Democratic primary and general election victories benefited from strong grassroots organizing that took his message to the doors, especially in the Black neighborhoods that provided him with substantial support. Even as the Covid-19 threat is being reduced by mass vaccination programs, the ability to “do the doors” has been hindered.
Krasner backers are making their case on TV, via the mails and social media, and with as much face-to-face canvassing as possible. They say he needs a second term to expand alternatives to prosecution, end overly punitive sentences, promote public health solutions to gun violence, and step up efforts to protect democracy from GOP voter suppression schemes. “When Larry ran for Philadelphia District Attorney, he promised that he would end our addiction to mass incarceration and reform an office that, for too long, let the powerful remain unaccountable. He has kept his promises—but there is more to do,” argues Krasner’s campaign. “A broken criminal justice system can’t be repaired in four years. In his next term, Larry will continue fighting for this community and for a more equitable and less carceral criminal legal system that invests in people, not profit and power.”