Philadelphia’s sprawling criminal justice system may experience a significant shakeup in the near future. While the current District Attorney, Seth Williams, hangs on to his position despite a federal indictment against him, the Democratic primary preceding the general election to replace him took place a little over a week ago. Lapping the field, a lawyer with no prior experience as a prosecutor emerged victorious despite significant opposition from some police leaders and former Assistant District Attorneys. To put Larry Krasner’s nomination in perspective, it is worth assessing the jurisdiction’s current status. Only then can we understand how seismic a shift Krasner’s prospective victory would represent for the city of Philadelphia.
Before Seth Williams, there was Lynne Abraham. Serving four terms as District Attorney from 1991 through 2009, Abraham developed a reputation for sheer toughness. In 1995, the New York Times identified her as “the deadliest DA,” a conclusion based on the fact that “no prosecutor in the country uses the death penalty more.” Abraham won re-election three times; then her reign as the longest-serving DA in Philadelphia’s history ended.
When Williams succeeded Abraham, he was perceived as a “change” candidate. Williams employed the rhetoric of a reformer, emphasizing the city’s need to be “smarter on crime” and to focus on prevention rather than prosecution. But, as Josie Duffy Rice points out for Slate, “most of that rhetoric turned out to be empty talk. Today, Philadelphia’s jail incarceration rate is higher than anywhere else in the country and more than three times the national average. A recent study found that Williams’ office detains 1 in 4 misdemeanor defendants simply because they can’t afford bail.” According to Daniel Denvir, who has reported on Philadelphia for years, Seth Williams’s time as DA has been marked by
“impunity for police beatings, perjury and illegal searches, keeping defense lawyers in the dark about bad cops’ records, resistance toward righting wrongful convictions, the seizure of people’s property even when they had not been convicted of a crime and, most importantly, a general operating philosophy that prized convictions and long sentences above all else.”
At the Open File, we have documented how troubling cases from the Abraham years and even earlier were often reversed or renegotiated in the Williams era, despite Williams’s efforts to defend them. In several instances, Williams used substantial resources to defend convictions that were clearly marred by prosecutorial misconduct. In light of his indictment on bribery, extortion, and fraud charges, Williams has brought both shame and a cloud of uncertainty to the office.
Before the Democratic primary on May 16th, it was unclear just how much Philadelphia voters craved real criminal justice reform. In a field that was not just crowded, but “crowded with reformists,” there was no doubt that a candidate with a progressive orientation would prevail. In selecting Larry Krasner, Philadelphia put its weight behind the most visionary and atypical candidate of all. Krasner—who has never worked as a prosecutor in his career—is a long-time civil rights and criminal defense lawyer. And, he carries with him the convictions and priorities one may expect from someone who chose that path and had those experiences.
Around the time of the primary, Alice Speri at The Intercept published an interview she conducted with Krasner. His perspective powerfully speaks to the community that identifies prosecutorial politics as a driver of the racially unjust policy of mass incarceration. Many people with experience in the criminal justice will relate to his analysis: “[T]he criminal justice system systemically picks on poor people, and those people, at least in Philadelphia, are overwhelmingly black and brown people.” Undeterred by the precedent set by his predecessors, Krasner campaigned “on the most progressive agenda of all the candidates, promising to end ‘mass incarceration’. . . . He vowed never to ask for cash bail for nonviolent offenders, pursue the death penalty, or bring cases based on illegal searches.” For these reasons, Denvir observed that “Krasner’s decisive win . . . is historic.”
Of course, Krasner will face obstacles, both inside the DA’s office and out. Though it certainly looks like he’ll win the general election—Holly Otterbein points out that “Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one”—he will be bruised on the way. John McNesby, who is the president of the powerful Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5, is likely gearing up to throw as much salt into Krasner’s campaign gears as he can gather. Already leaders and minions of the old guard have come out to paint Krasner’s candidacy as “dangerous.” In a public letter published by the Philadelphia Citizen, a group of former Assistant District Attorneys took some glancing shots that did little more than show how empty their words were when it comes to real policies. Taking issue with Krasner’s role as a defense lawyer and trying to count how many times he said the word “victim,” the ADAs pulled from the same tired playbook, and it certainly did nothing to alter the primary’s complexion. But, there is no reason to think they’ll let up before or after the general election.
If he wins, Krasner will have to start by figuring out what to do to change the culture within the massive 600-employee office he has sharply criticized. He is not downplaying the challenge. In his interview with Speri, he explained that massive turnover will be a reality. But, it will also entail “opportunities for greater diversity.” He hopes to take advantage of a so-far untapped talent pool, lawyers “who are either coming out of law school or who are mid-career who would love to work in a truly progressive DA’s office but haven’t been able to find any.” Beyond that, Krasner will have the sizable challenge of establishing a good working relationship with the police department—one that he has sued dozens of time in his civil rights practice. Hope for that relationship may come from Richard Ross, a new commissioner whom Krasner has described as progressive.
The Open File will continue to monitor Philadelphia. In some ways, Krasner’s eventual election may serve as an illuminating test of the claim that prosecutors are currently the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system. His success or failure in office is unlikely to provide the decisive or final answer. However, there is good reason to believe that real change is on the way. Change never comes easy, and other important actors like McNesby have already conspired to make his first term more difficult. For the sake of Philadelphia, its voters, and the many, many people negatively effected by mass incarceration, we hope the DA achieves the change they need.