The Battle for D.A. Is Testing Philadelphia’s Commitment to Reform

Larry Krasner ended an era of tough-on-crime policies in the DA’s office and sparked a nationwide movement. Now voters will decide whether to continue on this path.

Maura Ewing | May 17, 2021

A protest in Philadelphia in 2020 (Joe Piette/Flickr)

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

Larry Krasner ended an era of tough-on-crime policies in the DA’s office and sparked a nationwide movement. Now voters will decide whether to continue on this path.

The opposition campaign against Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, fueled heavily by the local police union and a group of former officers, has intensified in the lead-up to Tuesday’s primary election. “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,” local Fraternal Order of Police president John McNesby told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Billboards along I-95 call for Krasner to be fired, and earlier this month an FOP-sponsored ice cream truck stationed outside the DA’s office offered soft-serve as a reminder to voters of Krasner’s “soft on crime” policies. An accompanying truck was adorned with an anti-Krasner poster.

“The FOP is spending a lot of money and throwing their weight around,” said Reuben Jones, a prominent Philadelphia activist who is formerly incarcerated. “The ice cream thing sounds so ridiculous but that’s the stuff that gets people’s attention.”

Since taking office in 2018, Krasner—a firebrand not shy of the spotlight—has become a national darling for criminal justice reform. One term isn’t enough time to completely overturn a deeply entrenched system, but Krasner has made strides. As a result of his policies, the size of the court-supervised population shrank by more than a third, the number of people who spent at least one night in jail declined by 22 percent over the first year of his cash bail reform, some immigrants have more protections from ICE, and his conviction integrity unit exonerated 20 wrongly convicted prisoners.

This is a sharp turn away from prior administrations. David Rudovsky, a longtime civil and criminal defense lawyer in Philadelphia, said in an email that a succession of Philadelphia chief prosecutors’ policies over decades “led to mass incarceration, an insistence on the death penalty in a wide range of cases, a war on drugs that was counter-productive and resulted in high racial disparities of those prosecuted and sentenced, and a pattern of defending almost every conviction regardless of evidence of innocence or violations of the rights of the person convicted.”

On Tuesday, Philadelphia voters will decide if they want to continue on the new trajectory that Krasner initiated—primaries in this deeply blue city are typically de facto elections. And the pressure is high; this election is widely seen as a referendum on progressive prosecutors in Philadelphia and nationwide.

The outcome is “critically important” to the national movement for criminal justice reform, says Jamila Hodge, director of the Reshaping Prosecution Program at the Vera Institute of Justice. “DA Krasner is probably one of the most well-known names when it comes to the progressive prosecutorial movement,” she said. Should he lose, “It could have a chilling effect on whether or not a person in another jurisdiction decides to run, to challenge the status quo.” Essentially, Krasner is so recognizable that his defeat could slow the momentum of the progressive prosecutor movement.

Locally, though, activists are emphasizing the issues at stake over the symbolism of Krasner’s campaign.

“As much as it’s about Larry, it’s not about Larry,” said Sean West Damon, an organizer with Free the Ballot, a social justice alliance that supports Krasner. “It's a referendum on the politics of mass incarceration that have led Philadelphia to being one of the most incarcerated cities in the country.”

Krasner’s bid for re-election comes at a time when the decades-long decline in violent crime in America has been upended by a confluence of factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic, that defies simple explanation. Murder rates spiked in cities across the country. Last year in Philadelphia, 499 people were murdered, a number 40 percent higher than the year before and the highest since 1990. The number of people shot rose by 53 percent in a single year according to the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting, and are up 83 percent since 2017, the year before Krasner took office. There is no evidence that Krasner’s policies caused the spike in violence, but that may not stop some voters from retreating to the status quo of a punitive, tough-on-crime approach.

During his campaign, Vega has expressed general support for criminal justice reform while asserting that Krasner’s policies have harmed public safety. In a debate this month, Vega blamed the bloodshed in recent years on Krasner’s low conviction rates for gun cases and his cash bail policies that have led to fewer people in jail.

But he told the Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board: “I’m not going to reverse any policies.” Later, in a tweet, Vega said “that does not mean I don’t have my own policies in plans.”

The Appeal has reported on policies of Krasner's office that Vega said he would reverse. In an interview with The Appeal: Political Report, he said he would resume charging for drug possession, except marijuana, and rely on traditional diversion courts, whereas Krasner’s policy is to drop possession charges if a person attends just one addiction treatment meeting. And Vega said he would not cap probation and parole sentences, a Krasner policy that has drastically reduced the number of people under supervision.

Vega spent most of his career as a prosecutor under the administration of Lynne Abraham, whose hardline tactics and penchant for seeking the death penalty earned her the moniker the “Deadliest DA.” Abraham served from 1991 to 2010.

Recently, he has come under fire for his involvement in the civil case for exoneree Anthony Wright, who spent 25 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit. Vega was one of two assistant DAs who retried Wright even after DNA evidence cleared him. Throughout his campaign, Vega has distanced himself from the case, saying that he came in at the 11th hour. The Innocence Project rebuked Vega’s claim that he had minor involvement.

Rudovsky, who was part of the team that handled the case, said he believes that Vega’s participation in the Wright retrial is “reflective of what you would get if he was DA. … Which is, I think, a return to the old regime.”

Many decarceral advocates share that view and are campaigning for Krasner to make sure that their hard-fought progress isn’t rolled back. Krasner has faced criticism from the left for not going further to reduce the use of cash bail and for continuing to charge some teens as adults—though he does this less frequently than his predecessors.

“I don’t want to pretend like everything worked out the way we envisioned,” said Jones. “But the one thing I know is that without Krasner in office, we wouldn’t have made the progress that we made … the only way we can continue to work is to get him re-elected.”