Voters didn’t buy that soaring gun violence is Larry Krasner’s fault. Neither do experts.
Criminal justice experts say it’s unlikely one district attorney could do anything in less than four years to significantly increase or lower crime.
The video was jarring: A man standing on a West Philadelphia sidewalk, firing a handgun multiple times in broad daylight. As a statistic highlighting the city’s soaring murder rate flashed on the screen, a narrator said who was to blame: “Larry Krasner’s dangerous policies have deadly consequences.”
Voters were skeptical. And criminal justice experts say they were probably right to be.
The TV ad, from a political group partly funded by the police union that fought hard against Krasner’s reelection, cut to the heart of the campaign against Philadelphia’s reformer district attorney: The violence plaguing the city is his fault, opponents said.
Krasner cruised to victory anyway, beating Democratic primary challenger Carlos Vega by 30 percentage points Tuesday and putting himself on a glide path to win a second term in November. He did it with overwhelming support from majority-Black wards, including across West Philadelphia, where the last year has been marked by unprecedented gun violence.
And the neighborhood where that brazen, broad-daylight shooting took place? Krasner won by an 8-1 ratio.
Many voters said they didn’t buy that the DA — whose job is to charge and prosecute defendants after police arrest them — is responsible. One called the attacks “disingenuous.” Another described them as a “smear campaign.” Others were resigned, and said gunfire would persist no matter who won.
“Seeing this great uptick in murders, it’s horrible,” said Sunni Green Tolbert, who voted for Krasner in Mount Airy. “But to blame Krasner? ... What would [the Vega campaign] have said if the murders had not occurred this year?”
One reason the anti-Krasner argument didn’t stick may be that there’s little evidence to back it up.
Philadelphia’s rise in shootings and homicides began in 2015, three years before Krasner took office. And while gun violence has indeed skyrocketed during the pandemic, that’s happened across the country and Philadelphia’s increase hasn’t been worse than other cities. The first major report to analyze the nationwide homicide spike in 2020 found that Philadelphia had the 23rd-highest increase among 34 cities studied, behind New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The violence has racked cities with reform-minded and more traditional prosecutors alike.
This year, Philadelphia has the highest murder rate of American cities with more than one million residents, according to data compiled by Princeton University researchers. But that isn’t new: The city had the highest aggregate murder rate among the same cities in the 30-year span between 1990 and 2020.
It’s unlikely a district attorney could do anything in less than four years to significantly increase or lower crime, according to Marie Gottschalk, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist who served on a landmark National Academy of the Sciences panel that studied U.S. incarceration rates.
”Prosecutors have enormous discretion, but they don’t singlehandedly move the crime rate. They contribute to a wider culture of how you deal with crime,” she said. “Even if [crime] went dramatically down right now, I wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, that’s because of Larry Krasner.’”
The panel found that a so-called tough-on-crime approach doesn’t significantly lower gun violence rates, which are driven by factors like poverty and unequal access to trauma or addiction services.
“More punitive policies often don’t work because much crime is crime of the moment. It can be mental health issues, alcohol and drug issues, impulse issues,” said Gottschalk, who served on Krasner’s 2017 transition committee. “They’re not sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, Larry Krasner is in office, I can go shoot this person.’”
Tim Brown, organizing director of Philadelphia Neighborhood Networks, said those who live in communities most affected by gun violence blame poor social conditions. The people who blamed Krasner, he said, “didn’t live in that community.”
“It’s like people from the suburbs saying they won’t come into the city because it’s scary,” Brown said. “If you’re living and experiencing it, you know what’s up and what the facts are.”
» READ MORE: How Philly DA Larry Krasner won — and won big
Through months of campaigning, Vega — a longtime homicide prosecutor Krasner fired — zeroed in on the city’s soaring rate of gun crimes. Supporters of his campaign said Krasner’s efforts to reduce mass incarceration and his opposition to the death penalty emboldened criminals.
Much of that message tapped into understandable fear. Vega’s campaign sent mailers to voters headlined, “Philly is in crisis” — with each “i” replaced with a bullet.
Krasner ran largely on his reform record, like dropping drug-possession charges when defendants are in treatment and other policies he ties to reduced rates of incarceration. He took office in 2018 in the middle of an ongoing collaboration between the city and the courts aimed at reducing the jail population.
The DA also made for a politically convenient foil for the police union, whose members are facing increased scrutiny over their tactics following racial justice protests last year, even as homicides surge and case-clearance rates drop.
In 2020, 499 people were killed in Philadelphia, the most since 1990, when 500 people were slain in the deadliest year on record. The city is on pace to surpass that this year. As of Thursday, 199 people had been killed in 2021, a 40% increase compared with the same time last year and double the number of homicides at this point in 2016, according to police data.
Richard Rosenfeld, a University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist who has followed Krasner’s tenure, said critics of the DA failed to connect decisions he made to the killings. Vega supporters, for instance, pointed to data that show convictions in illegal gun-possession cases dropped during Krasner’s first term. They sometimes pointed to specific cases of such defendants going on to commit violent crimes. But they struggled to convince voters that the problem was systemic.
“What the opponents to Krasner would then have to show is that the persons who, under another policy, might have received a harsher punishment for illegal possession of a gun or illegal use of a gun, would have currently, under the Krasner policies, constituted a large fraction of those who are committing serious violence,” Rosenfeld said. “I haven’t seen any evidence to that effect.”
The Rev. Jeanette Davis, a Krasner supporter who works in gun-violence prevention, said homicides won’t meaningfully decrease until stakeholders across different levels of government address the ease with which one can obtain an illegal gun in Philadelphia.
“People want to know: Where did the guns come from?” she said. “It is not only Larry’s responsibility. We have a whole City Council, a mayor, community organizations, community members who need to be held responsible.”
Some voters said they were desensitized to the violence and decided on other issues. In the Fairhill section of North Philadelphia, Harold Wingfield, 64, said Krasner is “better for the juvenile system.”
“Violence is going to be out here no matter what,” Wingfield said, “until we get the guns off the streets.”
Staff writers Oona Goodin-Smith, Andrew Seidman, and Julia Terruso contributed to this article.