Larry Krasner’s election in 2017 as Philadelphia District Attorney sparked hope and excitement among justice reformers around the nation. The outspoken former public defender was among the first of a new “wave” of elected progressives willing to challenge the traditional role of prosecutors.
On Tuesday, Philadelphia voters will decide whether they want him to continue.
Krasner, 60, is running for a second term against a backdrop of rising crime—for which his opponents say his policies are partly to blame. Last year, the city recorded 499 murders, the highest number in three decades, and observers predict this year’s number will set a new record.
Adding to the drama, his principal opponent is a former prosecutor in his own office, whom he fired soon after taking the post. Carlos Vega, 64, has won support from both police groups and victims’ families who accuse Krasner of making the city less safe.
But while some are calling the race a test of whether the justice reform movement can maintain its momentum at a time of rising crime, others argue that Krasner’s combative personality rather than his policies will be the determining factor.
“I think there are real limits to the message you can take from this particular race to others,” Lauren Ouziel, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches at Temple University, told The Crime Report.
Ouziel said that although Krasner has portrayed his opponent as a symbol of a return to “tough on crime” policies, the debate has turned on specific issues such as prosecutions for gun possession—a source of anxiety for voters on both sides of the political spectrum.
“Vega is running a campaign where he is saying (you don’t have to choose between) reform and safety,” Ouziel said, pointing to his website. “He’s really running a tough-on-gun-crime campaign.”
Typifying the angry, no-holds-barred atmosphere of the campaign, just after the candidates concluded a TV debate earlier this month, a car was seen speeding down a nearby street with a message emblazoned on its rear window: “All Real Cops Agree. Fire Krasner.”
Krasner, who largely faults the pandemic era anxieties for the upsurge in crime, is no stranger to heated rhetoric. As a controversial attorney who sued the Philadelphia Police Department more than 75 times in misconduct cases, he has called police systemically racist and argued that over-policing has victimized communities of color.
Like other progressive prosecutors who have come to power elsewhere in the country, Krasner believes that eliminating or reducing arrests for non-violent offenses, such as prostitution and drug possession, can curb recidivism, shrink the incarcerated population, and restore trust and legitimacy to the justice system.
“I think the most important role that a prosecutor’s office should play is to try to prevent the next victimization, the next harm to someone,” he said in a recent interview.
“The criminal justice system itself should play a role of making society better, not worse and preventing crime, not encouraging it. And frankly, in many ways, it has failed.”
But activists have also found fault with some of Krasner’s policies, such as criticizing judges for setting bail too low for gun crimes, when he had originally campaigned on ending cash bail.
Some polls suggest the race is too close to call. And reform supporters elsewhere worry that a Krasner defeat could set back the progressive movement.
According to commentator Russell Berman in The Atlantic, Philadelphia’s primary campaign is a test of whether criminal justice reform can survive the upsurge in crime.
“[The election] will reverberate in states and cities that are pursuing criminal justice reform,” wrote Berman.
The increase in crime rates has put other self-styled progressive prosecutors on the defensive. In California, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón are both facing recall efforts.
As in Philadelphia, opponents accuse them of letting criminals loose on the streets and turning a blind eye to victims, reports Politico.
But some commentators argue that the differences in each jurisdiction make it difficult to draw sweeping conclusions from whatever happens in the Krasner race.
Ouziel noted that Krasner lacks the backing of key players in city politics. The Democratic committee in Philadelphia, for example, did not endorse Krasner in his first race, and failed to endorse him this year.
Krasner managed to win in a multi-candidate race in 2017 because of support from activist groups, and that may not happen again in a race which is as much a referendum on Krasner himself as on his policies, she said.
And, she added, Carlos Vega does not fit the model of a “tough on crime” challenger, even though Krasner may paint him that way.
“I think at a minimum, you could draw from a Krasner victory that obviously incumbency has its virtues, ” Ouziel said, but she added that a loss will not necessarily mean that voters are turning their backs on reform.
Progressive Prosecutors ‘Undercut’ by State Legislators: Paper, The Crime Report May 17, 2021
Victories of Progressive DAs Caught Opponents ‘Off Guard’, The Crime Report, Nov. 27, 2020
Anna Wilder is a TCR justice reporting intern.