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Larry Krasner deserves a second term as Philly district attorney | Endorsement

The Editorial Board was surprised and disappointed by Carlos Vega's lack of new policy ideas.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner speaks at a press conference on Monday, February 22, 2021.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner speaks at a press conference on Monday, February 22, 2021.Read moreThe Philadelphia Inquirer-Tribca

The Democratic primary for Philadelphia district attorney has been drawing national attention, and understandably so. Aside from its colorful main characters — an incumbent DA who’s a national icon in progressive circles, opposed by a former assistant DA whom he’d fired when he took the job — the race hinges on a powerful question: Is dramatic criminal-justice reform possible in a time of rising gun violence and murder rates?

No one can dispute the numbers: Philadelphia experienced the most homicides in 2020 in nearly 60 years, and 2021 is off to an even worse start. The first-term incumbent district attorney, Larry Krasner, notes that this spike parallels a national trend, and he insists it isn’t connected to his programs aimed at curbing mass incarceration. But his opponent, Carlos Vega, argues that Krasner’s approach to prosecuting gun offenses is too lenient — citing recent reports on low conviction rates for such crimes — and that the “bad guys” all know it.

» READ MORE: The Philadelphia district attorney’s job, explained

In addition to Vega’s sharp critique of the incumbent, this first-time candidate for political office is promoting his own personal biography of 35 years working in the District Attorney’s Office, becoming the first-ever Latino homicide prosecutor in Pennsylvania. Given his background, we’ve been a bit surprised and disappointed in the lack of new policy ideas or specifics coming from his campaign.

In an endorsement interview, we asked Vega which of Krasner’s policies he would reverse. His answer: “I’m not going to reverse any policies.” His primary argument to voters seems to hinge largely on the fact that he’s not Krasner. That’s won Vega the enthusiastic support of the local Fraternal Order of Police — which has clashed bitterly with the current DA — and a political action committee run by retired Philadelphia officers that apologized for a fund-raising letter blaming George Floyd for his own death. Neither ally gives confidence that Vega will champion police reform.

Just five years ago, Vega was part of the team that helped retry Anthony Wright — who had been convicted of murder in 1993 — despite DNA evidence that proved he has no connection to the case. Justice was served and Wright was acquitted after serving 25 years in prison.

Since Krasner took office in 2018, an additional 20 people — mostly Black men — with murder convictions have been exonerated and freed from prison, with help from a review unit strengthened by the reform DA. Vega told us he supports this work and claimed he would free even more of the wrongfully convicted — but again lacked specifics on how.

Vega does oppose supervised injection sites at a time of spiking overdose deaths — a solution to the crisis that Krasner has supported and that even his Republican opponent in 2017 was open to.

Meanwhile, Krasner has had more than three years to prove that a progressive prosecutor can radically reform how justice is carried out in a large American city. He’s taken the first steps to keep many of his 2017 campaign promises.

The decline of Philadelphia’s jail population has dramatically accelerated during his tenure. A study of Krasner’s 2018 decision to stop holding on bail people charged with a list of misdemeanors and nonviolent offenses found no drop-off in the rate of defendants appearing in court.

» READ MORE: Carlos Vega is making Philly DA Larry Krasner fight for his job as the election nears

Krasner has not sent anyone to death row since taking office, and he has charged a Philadelphia police officer with murder, a move that would have been unthinkable under Krasner’s “law-and-order” predecessors. And he’s worked in collaboration with the courts to treat nonfatal shooting cases with the same speed and expediency as homicides.

Yet the district attorney can and should do even better in several key areas. By his own admission, his office can do better on the critical issue of gun crimes. He should devote more attention and, if need be, more staff toward working with the families of crime victims.

But we hope that voters will look at the bigger picture when they enter the voting booth on May 18. A complex, relatively recent spike in gun violence isn’t a reason to return to the mass incarceration regime of yesteryear, but a challenge to do better. We believe the present DA, Larry Krasner, is also the district attorney for Philadelphia’s future, with bold ideas that hopefully he will better execute with more experience under his belt. We endorse him for another term.