EDITOR’S NOTE: On May 16, Larry Krasner won the Democratic primary for Philadelphia district attorney, sweeping past the six other candidates in the crowded field to earn more than 38 percent of the vote. As news of his victory spread, progressives and criminal justice activists broke out the champagne to celebrate a triumph that had seemed unfathomable just a few months ago. "This wasn't just a primary victory. This was a revolution," proclaimed Philadelphia Daily News columnist Will Bunch in an ecstatic dispatch published the morning after the election. Next up, Krasner will face off against Beth Grossman, the presumed Republican candidate, in the November general election.
Ending mass incarceration begins at home, says Larry Krasner, a longtime civil-rights attorney and leading candidate for Philadelphia district attorney. Harsh sentencing laws passed by Congress and state legislatures set the stage for mass incarceration, and police make arrests on the streets. But it is prosecutors who decide whom to charge, what to charge them with, and, in a system that often resolves cases with guilty pleas, what sentences to seek.
“The truth is that the most important thing that a district attorney can do is exercise that 700-pound hammer that is discretion,” says Krasner, who announced his candidacy surrounded by a crowd of activists that included many former clients. “As Nancy Reagan would say, ‘Just say no.’”
In Washington, Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are endeavoring to resuscitate an embattled war on crime, criticizing states that have legalized recreational marijuana, falsely claiming that immigrants pose a criminal threat, and moving to pursue harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders with abandon. But in reality the federal government incarcerates a small fraction of this country’s enormous prison population. States incarcerate an estimated 1,330,000, compared to 197,000 in federal prisons. An estimated 630,000 more sit in local jails on any given day, often held pretrial because they cannot afford to pay cash bail.
In Pennsylvania, there were 49,916 incarcerated in state prisons as of April 30, 28 percent of them hailing from Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Prison System, the local jail, currently holds roughly 6,600 adults.
Krasner pledges to fight the system by feeding it less: prosecuting fewer cases, ending cash bail, and refusing to bring cases to trial that stem from illegal searches. He also pledges to prosecute police misconduct, cease the seizure of assets of people who have not been convicted of crimes, and give people with a strong claim that they were wrongfully convicted a chance to prove their innocence. For Philadelphia—a city of with high rates of incarceration and homicide where police misconduct and abuse are a regular feature on the evening news—it would be a sea change.
Krasner, one of seven candidates in a tossup race for the May 16 Democratic primary, would not make for a typical district attorney. In fact, it is an office that he has spent his entire career fighting, going after abusive and lying cops, and representing protesters from Black Lives Matter, Occupy Philly, and ACT UP. In recent years, criminal justice–reform candidates have won races in other cities. But Krasner may be the first running a major campaign so explicitly aligned with social movements and so vociferously opposed to mass incarceration.