A few years ago, when Alison Macrina was living in Houston, she noticed that the city was voting ever more Democratic, but there was no organized party machine. So, as local judicial elections approached, she recognized there was an opportunity for anyone with an energetic campaign to jump in and have a real shot.
Macrina helped campaign for Franklin Bynum — a defense lawyer, democratic socialist, and prison abolitionist — and he won. In fact, he was part of a blue wave. Harris County, which marked its highest turnout ever in a midterm election, also elected 17 Democratic African American women judges, all of whom upset Republican incumbents after collectively campaigning on the potency of “Black Girl Magic.”
Now, Macrina, 34, and other organizers from 14 groups — ranging from the left-wing political group Reclaim Philadelphia to criminal-justice reform advocates including the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund and Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project — are seeking to replicate that impact here in Philadelphia, where seven seats on the Common Pleas and Municipal Courts are vacant.
Many of those groups worked to elect District Attorney Larry Krasner in 2016, and they see pushing the judiciary to the left as the next step to criminal justice reform.
“A lot of times, even in progressive and left-leaning circles, people aren’t clear who to vote for among judicial candidates,” said Rick Krajewski, an organizer with Reclaim. “I want us to be able to give voters the chance to make an informed decision.”
In the past, judicial elections have been decided in large part by ballot position and to a lesser degree by Democratic Party endorsements, for which candidates must donate $35,000 to the City Committee to fund its get-out-the-vote efforts.
To that end, the groups, in a coalition called the Judge Accountability Table, circulated questionnaires to candidates, and received around 30 responses. They’ve published a platform, including items like eliminating money bail, decriminalizing sex work and drug use, and reducing reliance on probation and parole.
And, on Monday night, they held a candidates’ forum — albeit one that seemed at times more like a push poll.
“Do you think that placing outrageous bails make our communities more safe?” Veronica Rex asked the candidates after telling them how she had missed Thanksgiving and Christmas with her grandchildren because of a $50,000 bail. (The consensus was that they do not.)
“Do you believe the current system of incarceration serves its purpose when it comes to black and brown people in the city of Philadelphia?” asked Bobby Harris, who was sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile and was only released after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentence was illegal. (Everyone said no except for Terri Booker, who said the system is designed to oppress and is accomplishing that task effectively.)
“Do you believe juveniles under 18 should ever be prosecuted as adults?” asked William Bentley of the Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project. (Only James Beradinelli, a veteran defense attorney and former prosecutor who has worked on both sides of some of the city’s most brutal murder cases, said yes.)
All told, 23 candidates participated, many of them chasing one another to the left as they answered the single open-ended question asked at the forum: “What can the courts do to heal the harms caused to our communities by the criminal justice system?” Not one of them rejected the premise.
“The judges that do the most to heal society are the ones that create the least amount of harm ... and give sentences that are restorative and aren’t punitive,” said Gregory Weyer, a criminal defense lawyer also running for Common Pleas Court.
Janine Momasso, a family law attorney and aspiring Common Pleas Court judge, said one important step would be to roll back probation terms that can last years after a person has served jail or prison time, making it more difficult to remain employed. “Probation can be, to me, double jeopardy in a way,” she said.
Tiffany Palmer, also a family law lawyer running for Common Pleas Court, said healing can only occur when elected officials recognize the forces fueling the criminal justice system. “At the base of it all is poverty," she said, and it’s self-reinforcing. "People lose their jobs when they can’t make bail; people lose their children when they can’t make bail.”
How this initiative will inform voters on Election Day is not clear, though organizers said more events are in the works.
Though some of the Judicial Accountability organizers are nonprofits and therefore unable to support specific political campaigns, other groups, including Reclaim, will be releasing lists of endorsed candidates.
Katia Perez of the Latinx organization Make the Road Pennsylvania said she recognizes this effort may come too late to have a sizable impact on this year’s elections. But she’s thinking long-term.
“A lot of people we talked to didn’t even know you could vote for judges. So our number-one job is to increase education in our community, and number two is to get people thinking, to realize we can vote for our judges. A lot of people are formerly incarcerated. If anything, it’s a tool of empowerment for them to know they have a voice in choosing who gets to be in that seat.”