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Philadelphia's progressive DA wins big in primary, boosting momentum for reform movement

"Four years ago we promised reform and a focus on serious crime," Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said after his victory Tuesday night. "We kept those promises."
District Attorney Larry Krasner talks to volunteers before they canvas around the Fairmount neighborhood in Philadelphia on May 16, 2021.
District Attorney Larry Krasner talks to volunteers before they canvas around the Fairmount neighborhood in Philadelphia on May 16.David Maialetti / The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

In a big win for the growing criminal justice reform movement, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner decisively beat his center-of-left challenger in a Democratic primary that pitted the incumbent’s progressive reforms against a rising tide of violent crime.

Krasner is one of several reformers who have taken over district attorney's offices in cities including Chicago, Baltimore and Los Angeles. Tuesday's primary was seen as a referendum on whether the current wave of reform-minded prosecutors would be blamed for increasing gun violence and whether the progressive movement could survive an uptick in homicides across the country.

“To me, it's an indicator that people have been ready for change and are happy with the change, which is the move away from using jails or prisons or other punitive measures for every social problem we have in our community and the need to look more holistically at each case as a prosecutor,” said Alissa Marque Heydari, deputy director for the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“In Philadelphia,” she added, “this is a resounding affirmation of all the things DA Krasner has been doing.”

On Tuesday, he beat Carlos Vega, a longtime Philadelphia prosecutor who was among the first group of assistant district attorneys to be replaced when Krasner took office. Krasner, who was first elected in 2017, will now face off against Republican challenger Charles Peruto Jr. in November.

A former civil rights attorney, Krasner has pushed for increased police accountability and lessened the reliance on cash bail for low-level offenses. His office does not seek the death penalty and attempts to divert juvenile defendants away from the adult criminal justice system. He also beefed up the office's conviction integrity unit, which has advocated successfully for at least 20 exonerations since he's been in office.

His re-election campaign attracted national attention, and Krasner won endorsements from prominent lawmakers including Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who tweeted that Krasner is "a fighter for the people and is successfully taking on a broken & corrupt system." He was also the subject of a documentary series from “Independent Lens” on PBS.

“Four years ago we promised reform and a focus on serious crime,” Krasner said after his victory Tuesday night. “We kept those promises. And this time they put us back in office for what we have done — not ideas, not promises, but realities.”

Those realities include a rise in crime across much of the city, a trend also seen in other major cities throughout the country. Last year, Philadelphia experienced the second deadliest year since 1960, with killings up 40 percent compared to 2019, NBC Philadelphia reported.

In a nationwide study released in November, the National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice found that violent crime in 21 cities jumped in both the summer and fall in 2020 compared to previous years. Homicides, gun violence and aggravated assaults all increased between late May and June of 2020, with gun and aggravated assaults each up 15 percent and homicides up 42 percent during that period, according to the study.

Critics have blamed Krasner and other progressive prosecutors for the increase in gun crimes, including in Los Angeles where the current district attorney is the target of a recall effort. Supporters have pushed back, noting that rising violence during the coronavirus pandemic and the economic instability that followed have plagued cities with both liberal prosecutors and law-and-order district attorneys.

“People never saw Larry as being responsible for gun violence,” said Philadelphia-based consultant Ben Waxman. “That was the entire premise of the Vega campaign and it never stuck with anyone.”

In Philadelphia, the neighborhood that leads the city in shootings also overwhelmingly voted for Krasner, according to Pennsylvania State Rep. Joanna McClinton, a Democrat whose district has been hit hard by gun violence.

McClinton, who is also a former public defender, was an ardent supporter of Krasner since his early days campaigning for district attorney. Nearly four years later, McClinton praises his commitment to attending community meetings in her district and his office’s work to pair accused offenders with social services.

She said the uptick in gun violence in her Southwest Philadelphia district is “nobody’s fault.”

“It’s a conflation of deep-rooted problems almost erupting like a volcano and it’s been in every city,” McClinton said. “The hopelessness was multiplied exponentially during the shutdown.”

In his attempt to unseat Krasner, Vega planned to bring federal law enforcement partners to the table to hold people accountable for gun crimes, The Associated Press reported. Vega also wanted to create a carrot-and-stick system for supervision where offenders would earn credit towards probation or parole after meeting certain benchmarks.

The Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 5 in Philadelphia poured money into unseating Krasner, posting billboards throughout the city and engaging in an aggressive social media campaign against the sitting district attorney. The union endorsed Vega and blamed Krasner for rising crime.

John McNesby, president of the police union, handed out soft serve ice cream on a recent afternoon outside the district attorney's office, telling passersby that Krasner is soft on crime.

But in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 7 to 1 and where residents rallied in large numbers against police brutality and racial injustice, a police endorsement could have backfired on a law-and-order candidate.

“Last summer, tens of thousands of young Black people took to the streets to demand we disinvest from our police force and begin investing in Black communities,” Philadelphia City Councilmember Kendra Brooks said in a statement. “The re-election of Larry Krasner is a testament to the movement’s strength.”