Philadelphia is going to have an extremely important election next week. On May 16th, Philadelphia voters will get to elect their next district attorney. Although the election is a primary, in a Democratic stronghold such as Philadelphia the Democratic primary winner inevitably becomes the winner of the general election.
The district attorney is the most powerful person in the criminal justice system. Philadelphia is lucky to be in a race that is generally progressive, and has been touted as such. However, that does not mean that there are no differences between the candidates on important issues such as the death penalty or stop-and-frisk.
The stakes are high. This is the first election in which Philadelphians will vote in the era of Trump. There are going to be roles in the criminal justice system that the Department of Justice traditionally filled, such as review of police departments, which the current Department of Justice shows no interest in doing. That means we need a DA who is willing to rise above their station and work harder than ever. It is also an opportunity to set the tone nationally, to signal to national leaders that when we talk about resistance, we mean it.
The current DA, Seth Williams, is leaving office with federal corruptions charges. In the past few years we have seen one elected official after the other be indicted with corruption in what some call “the most corrupt city in America.” Low voter turnout signals to our elected officials that no one is paying attention. We need to send someone to the office of the DA with a strong mandate and with a reminder that we will hold him or her accountable.
Although there are many good candidates in this race, it doesn’t mean that Philadelphia shouldn’t strive to elect the best candidate. That candidate is Larry Krasner.
There is one critique of Krasner that deserves consideration – he has never been a prosecutor. Personally, I have never found that to be overly concerning, but I couldn’t exactly articulate why. After attending multiple candidate forums and having the opportunity to speak one-on-one with each one of the candidates, it dawned on me. Being the DA of Philadelphia is about being the leading legal mind of the city. It is about steering the criminal justice system. It is like the difference between being a physician that works in the emergency room and being the health commissioner. It is the job of the physician to review each and every case individually, while the health commissioner’s job is to set guidelines and policies from a bird’s-eye-view of the system. This is why, unlike any other candidate, Krasner is a win-win. With Krasner as DA we get both progressive leadership and experience in court. A health commissioner who is also a practicing physician. Krasner understands the incentive structures that lead to bad policing and bad prosecution. Krasner understands the destructive culture of the DA office that values prosecution statistics over justice. And of course he does! He has been battling against these incentive structures and culture for 30 years. What Philadelphia needs is a person that can lead us away from “tough-on-crime” to “smart-on-crime” policies and can change the culture of institutional racism. Philadelphia needs Krasner.
In February, I took time to reflect on what makes a good DA. I believe that a good DA is one who is a part of the community, supports evidence-based policies, and understands the role of racism and white-supremacy in the criminal justice system.
“Those impacted most” is a phrase often used when we talk about criminal justice, those people are in many senses Krasner’s community. Krasner represented (usually pro-bono) activists who protested the RNC in 2000 and the DNC in 2016 as well as activists from Black Lives Matter, Occupy Philly, Dreamers and many other groups—you can meet them if you go to a Larry Krasner event. Why does he do that? Because Krasner sees in every activist and protesters a potential Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks, both who were arrested multiple times. The mug shots of both of those activist-heroes are presented in his office. For Krasner, “any one of the protesters we represent has the same potential. They're trying to change the world.” Protest and activism is the way for communities to make their voices heard between opportunities to cast a ballot. While another candidate has been blocking his critics on social media, Krasner is the only candidate who throughout his career demonstrated commitment to the role of community engagement, even when it is contentious.
When it comes to unequivocally supporting the abolishment of practices that are not based in evidence, Krasner is the only candidate who has been consistent in this campaign and his career. From day one Krasner promised to never pursue the death penalty (unlike other candidates who supported Governor Wolf’s temporary moratorium on executions but changed their position during the campaign), end civil asset forfeiture, end illegal stop-and-frisk, and put an end to cash bail. None of these practices have been shown to reduce crime, but all of them have been shown to have destructive effects on communities. We need a DA that wants to increase safety and reduce crime for the benefit of the communities of Philadelphia, not at their expense. That is inherent to pursuing justice. Larry Krasner’s platform and career reflects exactly that.
Racism shapes the criminal justice system. The US imprisons more of its black population than South Africa did during apartheid. Pennsylvania has the 7th highest ratio of black-to-white incarceration with 8.9 black people in prisons for each white person in 2014, much of the disparity driven by Philadelphia. The incarceration rate in Philadelphia is double the national average. When Krasner and I talked about racial bias and stop-and-frisk, he told me that the most important thing a DA in Philadelphia can do is “acknowledge and recognize that the legacy of Frank Rizzo is not dead.” You cannot divorce aggressive policing tactics from the fact that it means forcing them to behave like occupying armies. Aside from ending policies that inherently discriminate against people of color in Philadelphia (like pursuing non-violent drug charges, not seeking the death penalty, abolishing cash bail, and ending stop-and-frisk), Krasner said he would have the work of the DA’s office audited for racial discrimination. In Krasner’s words, “The culture of the district attorney’s office has brought us to this situation of having drastic injustice, especially focused on poor people and black and brown people. That culture needs to change.” Give him the opportunity to be DA and Krasner will change that culture.
Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions won’t have our back in the next four years. Using the word “resistance” on a daily basis doesn’t mean that we are resisting. Electing a true progressive to lead the city’s criminal justice system does. A progressive with a track record of fighting for racial and social justice, supporting activists and civil society, and speaking up against big institutions like the Philadelphia Police and the DA office when needed. Larry Krasner is the right DA for the right time. Larry Krasner it the district attorney that Philadelphia Needs and that Philadelphia should elect on May 16th.
For more on the DA race in Philadelphia follow Abraham Gutman on Twitter @abgutman.