A criminal defense attorney who campaigned on a progressive platform — promising not to lock up nonviolent offenders and to end both cash bail and mass incarceration —is the favored contender to become Philadelphia’s next top prosecutor.
Democrat Larry Krasner won the primary for Philadelphia district attorney on Tuesday with 37.5 percent of the vote. Krasner has never worked as a prosecutor; instead, he has aggressively gone after law enforcement, filing at least 75 lawsuits against the police and government entities.
He will now move on to a November general election against the Republican primary winner, Beth Grossman. He is the overwhelming favorite in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one.
During his election night party Tuesday, Krasner called his victory an indication that Americans are ready for criminal justice reform.
“Our vision is of a criminal justice system that makes things better, that is just, that is based on preventing crime and is based on building up society rather than tearing it apart,” he said.
Among a list of policies praised by criminal justice reform advocates, Krasner promised to treat addiction as an illness and not a crime, to stop seeking the death penalty, and to work toward ending both the city’s problematic asset forfeiture program and its ongoing practice of using stop-and-frisk searches.
Krasner will replace incumbent Seth Williams, who will stand trial next month in a federal bribery case. Williams took office in 2010 after four consecutive terms of Lynne Abraham, a prosecutor who has been called “the deadliest DA” in America.
Electing a progressive would mark a significant change for Philadelphia, but it’s not the only city moving toward reform. Across the country, overzealous and traditionally tough prosecutors are losing elections with more frequency as voters begin to understand that local elections can create the type of reforms not possible on a national level.
“The era of tough-on-crime rhetoric is coming to a close as voters realize that overzealous prosecutors have abused their power for too long,” Northeastern University law professor Daniel Medwed, a member of the Fair Punishment Project Advisory Council, said in a statement. “ Voters are ready for a state’s attorney who will focus on long-term solutions, rather than short-sighted policies that make them sound tough, but don’t result in equitable or sustainable results.”
Krasner’s primary victory marks a significant change of pace for Philadelphia, a city where policing and tough-on-crime strategies have dominated for decades. A recent study found that 36,000 black men are missing from the city’s streets — some dead, but far more locked behind bars. And a Department of Justice report on the city’s police department from 2015 found that the city had at least 394 officer-involved shootings between 2007 and 2013.
In the months after that report, the city made efforts to reform their system. According to the Atlantic, “improvements included the banning of chokeholds, placing limitations on the use of stun guns, and creating an award for using ‘exceptional tactical or verbal skills to avoid a deadly-force situation.’”
The city also recently opted for reform by electing Mayor Jim Kenney (D) last year, a former councilman who championed the decriminalization of marijuana and elimination of cash bail. Kenney also vowed to reduce the city’s jail population by one-third over the next three years.
But problems remain. According to a recent findings from the ACLU, officers in Philadelphia continue to conduct racially-biased stops and frisks, in violation of the terms of a consent decree agreed upon in order to settle class action litigation in 2011.
While Krasner is likely to win the general election later this year, he will face opposition in the coming months from both police unions and career prosecutors unhappy with his brand of justice. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, 12 former district attorney’s office employees have written a scathing open letter, calling Krasner’s ideas “dangerous.”
“Imagine working for someone who has openly demonized what you do everyday,” they wrote.
During his victory speech Tuesday, Krasner attempted to reach out to those who may disagree with him.
“To the good people of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, I want you to understand I know now — just as I knew when I was a starting public defender 30 years ago — I know that you could have made more doing something else and you could have had easier jobs, but you became district attorneys because you wanted justice,” he said. “I want what you want: justice.”