Larry Krasner’s win last month in the Democratic primary for district attorney wasn’t even close — and that should send a message to everyone, including Krasner.
This win comes a year after uprisings for racial justice, and proves that Philadelphians are ready to end mass incarceration. In case there was any doubt, voters also chose a new slate of reform-minded judges, cementing further their demand for change. And yet, the number of people jailed in Philadelphia has increased by 30% over the last year, the jail population is now even more disproportionately Black and brown than before, and people are being held in increasingly unsafe and inhumane conditions.
We still have lots of work to do.
First, youth are still being prosecuted as adults. They are locked up in an adult jail, which can be physically and mentally destructive and does nothing to get them the support they need or help them make different decisions in the future. In court, they are held to standards that are in direct opposition to scientific advances in understanding adolescent brain development.
When Krasner ran for office in 2017, he committed to removing all youth from the adult system and “treating kids like kids.” We have seen some significant improvements in how youth are treated in Philadelphia’s criminal legal system under his administration, such as more young people’s cases being eventually transferred out of adult court, and we applaud these steps. But we worry that Krasner’s office and the courts are slipping backward on this issue. As of June 15, 2021, there are 29 children in Philadelphia’s adult jails. That’s almost double the 15 kids who were in the city’s adult jails in February 2020, before the pandemic began and virtually the same number as before Krasner took office.
In some cases, prosecutors are requiring youth to plead guilty in exchange for their cases being transferred out of adult court. Krasner himself has described this practice as “coercive” and committed to ending it, yet it continues under his watch. Meanwhile, the Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project’s (YASP) court-watching team has seen the length of time that youth spend in adult jails as they wait for transfer to juvenile court increase significantly during the pandemic.
Children do not belong in adult jails — and their cases do not belong in the adult court system.
To make good on his promises, Krasner should move all children’s cases to juvenile court as quickly as possible. Both Krasner and the newly elected judges should push First Judicial District leadership to streamline the process for transferring youth to juvenile court so they don’t spend months — and in some cases, years — in adult jails, just waiting for a court date. And Krasner’s office should immediately stop the unconstitutional, exorbitant requests for $999,999 bail that he is making in nearly all cases of youth charged as adults.
Bail is another place where promises of change have fallen short. Courts are supposed to set bail only to ensure that people return to court for their hearings. But in practice, thousands of disproportionately Black and poor people are locked up in Philadelphia every year despite being presumed innocent, guilty only of lacking the cash to buy their release. Moreover, each year thousands of families from our poorest communities pull together resources they don’t have in order to pay for their loved ones’ freedom. Research has shown that cash bail does not keep us safe, and release policies during the pandemic have only confirmed this fact as rearrest rates for those released remain relatively low.
Krasner originally campaigned on a promise to end cash bail in Philadelphia. And while he did take an important first step in 2018 by instituting a policy to stop bail requests for a handful of charges, real progress has since stalled.
At the outset of the pandemic, Krasner said he would “simulate” a no-cash-bail system by requesting people either be released or held on $999,999 bail if they were “a serious risk to public safety.” But Krasner’s prosecutors have instead requested $999,999 bail in half of all cases, studies from both the bail fund and the Defender Association found last year. That’s nearly seven times the rate at which people are ultimately detained in no-cash-bail jurisdictions like New Jersey and Washington, D.C.
Krasner needs to end this practice and expand the charges for which his office will not request bail as he originally planned to do.
The courts also need to act. Bail magistrates continue to set unaffordable bail. In 2020, despite the dangers the pandemic posed to incarcerated people, the rate at which magistrates set bails over $25,000 and over $100,000 increased dramatically. While the courts have permitted programs like Early Bail Review — which offers some the chance to be released after five days of detention — the program is a band-aid. Five days in jail is enough time for someone to lose their job, home, custody of their children, and, as we have seen recently, their lives in Philly jails.
Krasner and the court system need to work together to change bail procedures so that people arrested are truly presumed innocent and deserving of release, as our state constitution already demands. They need to establish prompt, robust detention hearings for the exceptional cases that involve genuine questions of community safety. As part of these hearings, prosecutors must provide clear evidence that an individual cannot be released. To achieve this, a change in state law isn’t necessary; a change in political will is.
The court system needs to stop resisting public calls for change and take clear steps to reduce the jail population, such as lifting probation detainers, one of the biggest drivers of incarceration in the city.
This last election showed that the movement to end mass incarceration has real power. The forces of the status quo are on the way out. It’s not enough for Krasner and reform-minded judges to pay lip service to these ideas — our communities are demanding meaningful action.
Sarah Morris is co-director of the Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project (YASP). Malik Neal is executive director of the Philadelphia Bail Fund.