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Like Daytona, race for Philly DA keeps turning left

The only serious disagreement among six Philly DA candidates at a forum on mass incarceration was who moved left first, and who moved farthest. Why this year's election is a new dawn for criminal justice in a city once known for "law-and-order."

One by one, they rose up from their wooden pew and strolled towards the altar that was framed by a giant bronze cross -- people who had once been deemed the sinners and the outcasts in a city of unrelentingly harsh law-givers.

The black man who'd been sent away for life for a violent crime he'd committed as a juvenile, only freed more than three decades later because of a Supreme Court ruling. The Mexican woman whose schizophrenic -- and undocumented --  son is facing deportation after prosecutors charged him with felonies for acting out. The ex-offender who wanted to know why police were still stopping and frisking young men of color in his neighborhood.

They came Tuesday night to turn the tables upside-down on Philadelphia's criminal justice system -- to ask six of the eight candidates running to replace Seth Williams as district attorney just how, exactly, they plan to change things so people like them won't face the world of problems they experienced under the last series of DAs.

"Our DA's office has been looking for convictions rather than for justice," said Elena Diaz, the Mexican immigrant and South Philadelphia activist now fighting to thwart deportation charges against her 21-year-old son after his arrest by city police. "How will you stop this overcharging?"

Her pleas sparked little disagreement from the six candidates -- Teresa Carr Deni, Tariq el-Shabazz, Joe Khan, Michael Untermeyer, John "Jack" O'Neill and Lawrence Krasner -- who sat the front of the Arch Street United Methodist Church. Each said he or she would fight to keep Philadelphia as a "sanctuary city" for the undocumented, and would enact policies to make sure a criminal suspect's immigration status is better weighed before prosecution.

The event was billed as the Philly District Attorney for the People Forum, but the spirit behind a fairly remarkable two-hour event that brought a few hundred folks to pack the pews in the Center City sanctuary was best summarized by its Twitter hashtag: #DecarcerateDA. It was impossible to step into the spring air on Broad Street at the end of the night without thinking that Philadelphia will have fewer of its citizens in jail or in upstate prisons, and perhaps say goodnight for good to the death penalty, after the dust finally settles next January.

It might have been different if Beth Grossman, the Republican candidate, or Rich Negrin, the perhaps more moderate candidate endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, who was said to have a case of pneumonia, were at the event. With the six Democrats who did attend, the DA's race is starting to feel a little like the Daytona 500 -- with every turn to the left.

Krasner said it was time to end a Pennsylvania-wide justice climate that's biased toward long sentences because "in the counties where they used to have coal, now they have prisoners." Khan boasated that "I've held corrupt police officers to account," while O'Neill said a DA's policies on issues such as immigration matter more after the election of President Trump "because we have a White House that is racist and xenophobic and full of hate." None of his rivals seemed offended by that.

The six attendees -- El-Shabazz, Khan, O'Neill and Untermeyer all former or current assistant prosecutors, Deni a municipal court judge and Krasner a civil-rights attorney -- rarely disagreed, and typically then only by matter of degree.  A so-called "lightning round" of questions about prosecuting corrupt cops or ending civil forfeitures of cash or property from people not convicted or crimes was typically a race to utter "yes," or "hell yes" as Krasner declared at one point.

On one key issue that tends to resonate with more liberal Democratic primary voters, only El-Shabazz and Krasner committed themselves to totally ending the death penalty, although none of the candidates seems to have an interest in bringing back the era when Lynne Abraham, top prosecutor for most of the 1990s and 2000s, was known as "the Deadliest DA."

Still, tensions flared several times -- mostly over who moved to the political left first, or fastest, or why. For example, Khan turned on Untermeyer -- the candidate who's spent the most on TV ads so far -- as a turncoat who'd run for office earlier in the decade as a conservative Republican before changing parties; Untermeyer replied that Khan had been a "vapid" candidate before stealing positions from established progressives such as Krasner.

For his part, Krasner questioned why the former prosecutors on stage hadn't worked more for reform in the past, drawing a sharp retort from El-Shabazz who said he'd nixed bad prosecutions in his recent tenure as Williams' top lieutenant. "I didn't protest," he snapped at Krasner, best known for defending demonstrators from events like Occupy Philly. "I did it."

None of the bickering, though, suggested that Philadelphia will return anytime soon to the type of "law-and-order" regime in the 20th Century style of Frank Rizzo, whose statue at the Municipal Services Building was just stone's throw from from the church's front door...and yet light years away.