In the US, the district attorney in any jurisdiction has a huge amount of influence in who is charged, what bail is required, what kinds of plea deals are offered, and what sentences are sought. Philadelphia is a city that has had a notorious past where district attorneys backed by authoritarian mayors and ruthless policing were the norm for decades. When Larry Krasner ran for district attorney and won four years ago, he was one of the first reformists to win such elections such offices across the country who promised to end the way things were done.
KRASNER WAS ELECTED in 2017 on a promise to end mass incarceration in the city and transform the way prosecutors approach crime. At the time, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch described Krasner’s win as “a revolution.” The win by a former criminal defense and civil rights attorney who had never worked as a prosecutor until his election ushered a new era into an office that had been run for two decades by one of the “deadliest prosecutors” in the country, Lynne Abraham, whose office sent 108 people to death row.
Krasner’s office pledged never to seek the death penalty, stopped requesting cash bail for low-level offenses, expanded diversion programs for some gun offenses, and stopped prosecuting marijuana use and sex work. He also took a hard line on police accountability, brought charges against more than 50 officers accused of misconduct, and instituted a “do not call” list of officers with a history of misconduct and dishonesty that his office deemed unreliable witnesses and would not call to testify in court. The district attorney revamped a conviction integrity unit that has helped to exonerate 20 people since he took office in 2018.
[T]here is no question that Krasner’s 2017 election helped build momentum around district attorney races across the country. Until then, incumbent prosecutors were rarely challenged and even more rarely defeated. But Krasner’s win in Philadelphia, as well as Kim Foxx’s in Chicago a year earlier, contributed to fueling nationwide awareness and enthusiasm around previously low-turnout elections. Their elections also shaped public understanding that DA races could be competitive and a space for substantial policy debate — drawing even more candidates to enter such races.
His policies were immediately criticized by the police union and when he ran for re-election, he was challenged in the Democratic primary by a candidate who was backed by the police union in a contest seen as a referendum on his policies. Krasner won handily. Since Philadelphia is a heavily Democratic city, the winner of the primary is pretty much a shoo-in in the general election.
With 74 percent of votes counted, Krasner led his Democratic primary challenger Carlos Vega 65 percent to 35 percent, according to the Associated Press. Vega conceded the race shortly before midnight on Tuesday, and Krasner is all but assured victory in the November general election.
Vega, a former homicide prosecutor who was one of 31 staffers Krasner fired during his first week as district attorney, had run a campaign attacking Krasner’s policies as soft on crime and was boosted by one of the largest expenditures from the city’s police union in more than a decade.
IN PHILADELPHIA, the strongest and earliest backlash to Krasner’s election came from the police union. The president of Philadelphia’s police union, John McNesby, made numerous appearances on Fox News and other outlets attacking Krasner’s policies, claiming that the DA disliked law enforcement and calling on voters to support Vega.
It is hard for people who do not live in the US to understand two things about the criminal justice system here: (1) How powerful district attorneys are in the system and the central role they play; and (2) that they and local judges often are elected to their offices.
For the longest time, these positions were not the targets of progressive activists who tended to focus on more state and national legislative races. Now they are realizing that they can run progressives for these offices and win, and that it can change the entire nature of the relationship between police and the public.