Heading into Tuesday’s Philadelphia district attorney primary election, local and national media, with a healthy assist from the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, advanced a narrative that all of the city’s crime problems could be laid at the feet of the incumbent, Larry Krasner. The outspoken former civil rights attorney, they said, was responsible for a rise in violence in the city. The FOP’s handpicked successor, Carlos Vega, was the one to return us to a magical time when all was good in the streets.
But now, with most votes tallied, Krasner is cruising to a second term and beating his FOP-funded challenger 2-1.
Billed as a test for the progressive prosecutor movement, Krasner’s victory shows that voters know that more cops, more mass surveillance, and longer jail sentences cannot be the solution to Philadelphia’s rise in gun violence. Instead, we must make investments in real solutions that help our communities actually heal.
In 2017 Krasner ran as a reformer, galvanizing a community that for too long had been bludgeoned by a criminal legal system that was supposed to protect and serve. He made a lot of promises, and he’s kept many of them. Under his tenure, the county jail population was cut by 40%. Ninety-eight percent of juvenile cases are handled out of court, and, to the consternation of the FOP, he instituted a “do not call” list for officers who cannot testify at trials due to prior abuses of power.
The FOP attempted to paint Krasner as “soft on crime,” even going so far as to park a Mr. Softee ice cream truck outside the office to drive home the point that voters should fire Krasner for not doing enough to curb crime in the city.
There’s a problem with this narrative that voters saw right through: Words mean things and so do statistics. The FOP would have you believe that not locking up any and everybody is driving the rise in violent crime. But sadly, shootings and killings have risen nationwide during the pandemic. What Krasner has done is refuse to drop the justice system hammer on the powerless to pad statistics that create an illusion of public safety. Focusing on the most serious offenses isn’t soft, it’s smart, and it leads to real safety, safety that we can feel.
As Ryan Cooper pointed out in The Week, Krasner has prosecuted 99% of homicide cases and 98% of nonfatal shootings when someone is caught. The police make arrests in just 40% of homicide cases and less than 20% in nonfatal shootings. The District Attorney’s Office is doing its job. People can draw their own conclusions about the effectiveness of the police force.
These elections also don’t happen in a vacuum. Krasner’s election in 2017 started a wave of progressive, reform-minded DAs winning election running on unapologetic, explicit reform agendas that resonate with voters. From San Francisco to Austin to Orlando, voters have turned out in droves for candidates willing to boldly reimagine what our criminal legal system can be. What if we stopped trying to jail our way to safe streets? What if we invested more money in victims services, drug treatment, and diversion programs? What if jail and prison were used only as a last resort? These are questions Krasner and other progressive district attorneys are answering daily.
With the election in the rearview mirror, the hard work in our city continues. Winning an election is not an end goal, just an important step in a series of steps to overhaul a system that has for so long treated Black, brown, and poor people as disposable. Now, as we look toward the next four years, it’s time for the District Attorney’s Office to focus on ending cash bail, and building stronger ties with all members of the community.
We hope those who opposed Larry Krasner, but claim they want a better Philadelphia, will join us. But after Tuesday night one thing is clear — we’re only going forward, and not one step back.
Nicolas O’Rourke is the organizing director of Pennsylvania Working Families Party.