Will Philadelphia Voters Stick with Justice Reform?

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Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner (R) is in a tough primary race against challenger Carlos Vega (L). Still photo via NBC10

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.

lauren ouziel

Lauren Ouziel

“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.

Additional Reading:

 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.

2 thoughts on “Will Philadelphia Voters Stick with Justice Reform?

  1. I dont live in the Northeast but I am familiar with these very old and entrenched so-called justice systems. We have been here before from the 1890s Good Government movement, to the late 20s, to the late 40s, and to the late 60s well into the 1970s. Gross injustices rampant, unchecked police powers and unchecked prosecutorial discretion, and horrible jail conditions. I am impressed with Krasner’s determination to break the cycle of incompetence, corruption, and general unwillingness of a highly politicized public that refuses to learn from what the data say about conditions. Police unions have been handed too much power (essentially no public control); prosecutors in many cases have to much discretion since they are elected; and jail administrators have no more resources to warehouse what elected judges send them. All this has been studied time and again since Herbert Hoover’s Wickersham Comm (1929-1931) and LBJs LE and Admin of Justice Comm in the mid 1960s—and the FED and states have funded millions of pages of research via university criminology and CJ programs—and here we are with the same (perhaps worse) problems in 2021. Krasner knows all this and has given good service, but the pol atmosphere can easily pull the house down, AGAIN.

  2. I am hoping that someone, somewhere out there care enough to do something about these outrageous ‘mandatory minimum’ sentencing for non-violent drug charges in the Federal prisons! To think that there’s a darn good chance, that if you were to kill someone, you’d more likely get off with less time. That a person can get ten to twenty years in PA, for drugs, that if you were in Spokane, WA, you wouldn’t even get arrested at all! how is that fair!? It is not. I have someone awaiting trial in Federal prison right now, ( Who I know, is guilty of nothing more than just being a drug addict.) He never knew what drugs were, until he enlisted in the Navy, & unfortunately got stationed in California. Where drugs ran rampant. (including throughout the base.) And so it began… He has been in & out of jails & prisons ever since. NOT ONCE! was he ever offered help for his addiction. And now, because of his priors, and this mandatory sentencing, He very well can be spending the rest of his life in prison. He’s only 54 years old. He has two children under the of two, who he adores. For nothing more than being an addict. He wasn’t selling it. He wasn’t making it. He was just doing drugs. And yes, doing drugs is against the law, (In most states.) But it doesn’t warrant the rest of his life! Drug addition IS a Disease! Please Help! Thank you…

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