In 2017, Larry Krasner won his election for Philadelphia district attorney on promises of ending mass incarceration, cash bail, and the death penalty, among other reforms. Since then, national media has often heralded Krasner as a model “progressive prosecutor.”
But Krasner’s actions have fallen far short of his rhetoric. Despite claims that his office is working to end cash bail, court watchers have observed assistant district attorneys consistently request cash bail for people who cannot afford to pay, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a recent interview with Democracy Now‘s Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh, Krasner’s until-that-point progressive tone vanished when he was challenged on his continued use of cash bail, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rattling off an attack on Philadelphia bail funds and activists that was riddled with mischaracterizations and “whataboutisms,” Krasner made one point abundantly clear: He still doesn’t understand why bail exists.
The Constitution promises that anyone charged with a crime is innocent until proven guilty. Assigning cash bail to those who cannot afford to pay flips that promise on its head, incarcerating people who have not yet been convicted of a crime because they are poor. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently reminded bail authorities that cash bail should never be imposed for the purpose of ensuring that a defendant remains incarcerated pending trial.
Bail should never be a means to keep people incarcerated. In fact, bail is a tool to ensure that people show up for their day in court, not to keep them incarcerated until that day. Assigning cash bail without considering whether a person can afford to pay creates a two-tiered criminal legal system that treats those with financial means much differently than those without.
During a pandemic, this distinction becomes a matter of life and death. As Krasner notes in the interview, “There’s no easy exit door to the jail, because the courts are closed.”
This statement is an abdication of Krasner’s own prosecutorial powers. He has the authority to drop charges against those accused of low-level offenses. He could request that cash bail be suspended in cases where a payment is the only thing keeping a person incarcerated. His assistant DAs could stop their practice of regularly requesting million-dollar bail, according to a recent report by the Philadelphia Bail Fund. He could step up, instead of passing the buck.
Krasner need not look far to educate himself on what it would mean to end the reliance on cash bail in Philadelphia. Just across the border, New Jersey virtually eliminated all cash bail statewide in 2017. While ending cash bail, unfortunately, did little to address the racial disparities that makeup New Jersey’s jail and prison population, it did decrease the overall jail population. What’s more, the use of nonmonetary bail and other tools like text reminders have ensured that people out on bail still show up for their day in court at effectively the same rate as before the change. Several other states and localities have moved to end the use of cash bail with similar results.
The bottom line is that the work done by bail funds like the Philadelphia Bail Fund, the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, and advocates like the Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project saves lives. Without these groups’ work to rescue people from the horror of being incarcerated pretrial during a deadly pandemic, the situation in our jails would be exponentially worse.
Krasner’s mischaracterizations of and attacks on the bail funds and other activists show that the district attorney has a long way to go in living up to his self-proclaimed mantle as a progressive prosecutor.
Reggie Shuford is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.