This Next District Attorney Is a ‘Sea Change’ for Criminal Justice Reform

While Philadelphia voters’ overwhelming support for Larry Krasner this November may seem like an outlier, it isn't the only example of voters turning to criminal justice reform-minded candidates.

Krasner openly campaigned against mass incarceration and criticized law enforcement as “systemically racist.” WHYY News / YouTube

District attorney elections don’t typically get much attention in the media, but one self-identified progressive made waves and national headlines in Philadelphia earlier this year when he won almost 40 percent of votes in his primary facing six other Democrats for the city’s nomination. Voters returned in November, handing Larry Krasner a decisive victory with 74.67 percent of votes cast.

Krasner’s campaign was remarkable in that he openly campaigned against mass incarceration and criticized law enforcement as “systemically racist.” As the New York Times reported, he has sued the police 75 times over the course of his career. His campaign platform vowed to “fundamentally change [the culture of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office], from a culture of seeking victory for prosecutors to a culture of seeking justice for victims.”

Jessica Brand, legal director at the Fair Punishment Project, told Rewire that the visibility of Krasner’s record and platform on criminal justice reform drives home that these are policies the voters were aware of. “It’s not like he hid his feelings or experience from the voters,” she said. “They knew he had sued the police 75 times, they knew he was a civil rights attorney. His campaign poster said exactly what he wanted to do: Resist Trump and the death penalty, and reform cash bail and mass incarceration. So it’s not a surprise to the voters. People there knew exactly what they were voting for.”

“It’s a total sea change,” she said when asked what kind of impact Krasner could have on criminal justice reform in the city.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office “provides a voice for victims of crime and protects the community through zealous, ethical and effective investigations and prosecutions,” according to its website. In addition to serving 1.5 million people, the office oversees a staff of lawyers, detectives, and other staffers.

As the district attorney, Krasner will oversee those resources and play a critical role in deciding which cases the office takes on how and it handles them. According to Brand, the policies he could weigh in on include whether the office will pursue the death penalty, what its policy on civil asset forfeiture will be, and whether it will train its lawyers on the Brady rule—which requires prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence to defendants.

His campaign website offers some insight into the direction he is expected to take on a variety of issues.

For example, the city’s top prosecutor determines how the office pursues lower-level offenses. On his campaign’s website, Krasner made a promise to “implement alternatives to cash bail for those charged with nonviolent offenses”; help those arrested for minor drug charges get treatment instead of incarceration; and work to end stop-and-frisk in the city by refusing to prosecute crimes that stemmed from these searches.

Lower-level offenses also intersect with immigration policy. As Krasner explained in his platform, “legal proceedings can affect the status of immigrants and therefore relations between communities and law enforcement.” Brand said that “if you prosecute low-level crimes, people get arrested, they get held in jail, that’s how ICE finds you—you have a record for something silly like possessing a small amount of weed, which is legal in lots of this country, and then you could be deported.”

This process, known as “crimmigration,” has been reported on extensively by Rewire‘s Tina Vasquez.

Krasner’s platform specifically vows to “take those effects [of legal proceedings] into account when making prosecutorial decisions and setting prosecutorial policy.” It’s an issue underscored by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ “tough on crime” approach and his complaints that some local prosecutors aren’t going far enough to prosecute undocumented immigrants in cases that could lead to deportation.

The district attorney also acts as a key influencer on mass incarceration. “Prosecutors are enormously powerful in the US criminal justice system, in large part because they are given so much discretion to prosecute however they see fit,” explained Vox’s German Lopez in a piece published earlier this month. Lopez continued:

John Pfaff, a criminal justice expert at Fordham University, has found evidence that prosecutors have been the key drivers of mass incarceration in the past couple of decades. Analyzing data from state judiciaries, he compared the number of crimes, arrests, and prosecutions from 1994 to 2008. He found that reported violent and property crime fell, and arrests for almost all crimes also fell. But one thing went up: the number of felony cases filed in court. Prosecutors were filing more charges even as crime and arrests dropped, throwing more people into the prison system. Prosecutors were driving mass incarceration.

So for Philadelphia, a city that spends seven cents of every tax dollar on incarceration and has had one of the highest per capita incarceration rates of any major city in the country, the stakes are high.

That’s what inspired national organizations such as the Americans Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to get involved in the race, though its tax status prevented it from endorsing a candidate. In a blog post after the election, the ACLU said it had worked with a coalition of civil rights organizations on the election and had “hired 51 canvassers who are formerly incarcerated to knock on 26,000 doors to ask our members, in a non-partisan way, to vote for a district attorney candidate committed to ending mass incarceration.”

It was part of the organization’s new strategy to address mass incarceration and address racial disparities in the criminal justice system, in part by working on voter education in key district attorney races. “If we’re ever going to genuinely transform our nation’s criminal justice system, then we have to overhaul prosecutorial practices,” the ACLU’s Udi Ofer told Politico in May. “If there’s one person in the system that can end mass incarceration tomorrow if they wanted to, it’s prosecutors.”

And the ACLU was hardly the only group on the ground in the Philadelphia race. During the primary, the race drew large donations in support of Krasner, and progressive groups like the Working Families Party and the political action committee of the civil rights organization Color of Change all mobilized on his behalf.

“Given the frequency at which Black people are over-prosecuted for minor infractions, shaping the outcome of District Attorney races has been a primary goal for Color of Change PAC,” Jennifer Edwards, communications director at the organization, said in a statement explaining why it got involved in Krasners’ race. “When we are victims of police brutality, our perpetrators almost always avoid charges and convictions. District Attorneys have the power to determine how to hold these positions accountable, but voters often overlook these races.”

“Philadelphia is the most incarcerated big city in America, and Black and brown communities have born that cost,” Brandon Evans, the Pennsylvania state director of the Working Families Party, told Rewire by email. “We backed Larry Krasner from the start because he was the candidate who was willing to tell the truth about our broken criminal justice system, which has destroyed so many lives, especially in communities of color. He will make the bold changes we need to begin reversing mass incarceration and ensuring justice means safety for all of us.”

While Philadelphia voters’ overwhelming support for Krasner this November may seem like an outlier, it isn’t the only example of voters turning to criminal justice reform-minded candidates. “I also think it is indicative of a model you’re seeing in other parts of the country where voters are saying we’re done with this wasteful overly incarcerating system,” Brand said.

She pointed to victories from other advocates for criminal justice reform, like Cook County State Attorney Kim Foxx, who ousted Anita Alvarez from the role in 2016 while running on a platform opposing mandatory minimums for gun crimes and supporting an end to the school-to-prison pipeline. “Anita was typical tough-on-crime, harsh, lock them up and throw away the key prosecutor and they replaced her with a woman who is working on reforming the cash bail system and really changing things in her office,” noted Brand.

“There are other examples of that in Denver, in Jacksonville, Florida, in Orlando, Florida. You’re seeing people, voters, really shift course and they want a different kind of prosecutor who is going to be responsive to our communities and really thoughtful about their policies,” Brand continued.

“And just looking at candidates that are talking about 2018 elections, you’re starting to see more reform-minded candidates emerge and be really proud of these platforms as opposed to being afraid of looking soft on crime. And that’s a huge change in this country.”