Can a Progressive Prosecutor Survive a 40% Spike in Homicides?

PHILADELPHIA — When Larry Krasner was elected Philadelphia’s district attorney in 2017, his story made him one of the most visible of a new wave of progressive prosecutors: A lawyer who had sued the police for civil rights violations 75 times had become a top law enforcement official in one of America’s largest cities.

Mr. Krasner promised to stop prosecuting drug possession and prostitution and to hold the police accountable for misconduct. But even as he wrote a triumphal book about his election and starred in a PBS documentary series, homicides and gun violence in Philadelphia were rising to levels not seen since the 1990s.

Now Mr. Krasner, 60, is facing a primary challenge from a veteran prosecutor he fired, who is arguing that Mr. Krasner has made the city less safe.

Public concern about racism and overincarceration in the criminal justice system during the past decade drove progressive prosecutors like Mr. Krasner, who promote less punitive approaches, into office. But that was after a long period of declining crime. Philadelphia’s Democratic primary on Tuesday poses a test of whether such candidates can continue to win elections when gun violence has risen in cities around the country.

The police have seized upon the statistics to promote Mr. Krasner’s opponent, Carlos Vega, 64. Earlier this month, the police union parked a soft-serve ice cream truck outside the district attorney’s office to emphasize that Mr. Krasner had been soft on crime. (In response, Mr. Krasner’s campaign released a statement of support from Ben Cohen, of Ben and Jerry’s.)

The union has given $25,200 to Mr. Vega’s campaign and has encouraged Republican voters to register as Democrats in order to vote Mr. Krasner out. Minutes after the candidates concluded their only televised debate in early May, a car streaked down Spruce Street, its rear window embossed with the message, “All Real Cops Agree. Fire Krasner.”

In his first election, Mr. Krasner attracted a coalition of young progressives, labor unions and moderate Black voters. His road to victory has not changed. But the math may have: According to the state, more than 6,300 Republicans in Philadelphia County have become Democrats in the aftermath of the presidential election, which could mean an influx of more conservative primary voters. (That said, Mr. Krasner won his first primary by a margin of nearly 28,000 votes while running against six other Democrats.)

Opponents hope that the sharp rise in gun crime over the last two years has made Mr. Krasner vulnerable. Overall, violent crime is down in Philadelphia. But between 2019 and 2020, the number of homicides rose from 356 to 499, a 40 percent increase.

Mr. Krasner blames the pandemic. Mr. Vega blames Mr. Krasner.

“We are arresting people with guns and there are no consequences,” Mr. Vega said. “There is a revolving door.”

He said he would take a more aggressive approach toward what he said was a small group of people that were causing the violence, and would prosecute violent crimes more harshly than his opponent.

Criminologists said it would be impossible to substantiate the claim that Mr. Krasner’s policies had led to more gun crime. They point out that gun violence rose sharply in many cities last year, regardless of whether their prosecutors were considered progressive.

Theories for the rise in gun violence include pandemic-related factors like a halt to social services and a slowdown in the court system. Another possible factor could be a police pullback in the face of increased public scrutiny, said Richard Berk, a professor of criminology and statistics at the University of Pennsylvania, who cautioned against jumping to conclusions.

Mr. Krasner said the pandemic had offered an opportunity for “a throwback culture” to “claw its way back in.” But he said that the tough-on-crime posturing of previous district attorneys had been “nonsense.”

“There’s absolutely no scientific support for the notion that all that ranting and raving about the death penalty ever made anybody even a little bit safer,” he said.

Mr. Krasner announced his first run in 2017, weeks after Donald J. Trump’s presidential inauguration. Amanda McIllmurray, a progressive organizer in Philadelphia, said that Mr. Krasner, who had no experience as a prosecutor, was seen as someone who might counter the president’s emphasis on law and order.

“He really gave a lot of people hope at a time where we were feeling a lot of despair,” she said.

Once in office, Mr. Krasner fired more than two dozen veterans including Mr. Vega, who had been a prosecutor for more than three decades.

Mr. Krasner also lowered the number of people in the city’s jail by more than 30 percent, stopped prosecuting some low-level crimes and asked judges for less severe sentences.

But even some of his supporters say that he can be tactless and reluctant to accept criticism, and that he has backed away from promises to eliminate cash bail and to stop holding juveniles in adult jails.

“We’re at the point now where he’s not open to being challenged on how he can do better from leftists,” said A’Brianna Morgan, a police and prison abolitionist.

Mr. Krasner said that he had done a good job getting rid of “dumb, low bails for broke people on nonserious offenses,” but that he was restricted by bail laws on more serious crime, and that he had resolved a vast majority of juvenile cases in juvenile court.

And he has cast Mr. Vega as an embodiment of the establishment he sought to upend. He points to Mr. Vega’s role in the retrial of Anthony Wright, a man who was wrongfully convicted of rape and murder and spent 25 years in prison before his conviction was vacated.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, then led by Seth Williams, mounted a new trial of Mr. Wright, making him the only client of the Innocence Project ever to be retried after DNA evidence indicated his innocence. Mr. Vega was one of the prosecutors in the retrial.

Mr. Vega said that it had not been his decision to retry the case but that he thought the witness testimony had been strong enough to do so. (Mr. Wright was found innocent.)

Peter Neufeld, a founder of the Innocence Project, said that Mr. Vega’s actions during the retrial had been unethical and that he had misled the public about the extent of his involvement.

Mr. Vega is backed by more than a hundred of his fellow ex-prosecutors, including Ed Rendell, a former Philadelphia district attorney who later became the mayor of Philadelphia and the governor of Pennsylvania.

He is also supported by a number of victims’ family members who feel that Mr. Krasner has been too lenient. Among them is Aleida Garcia, whose son was murdered in 2015. Mr. Vega handled the case until 2018, at which point Mr. Krasner fired him without alerting the family. Though her son’s killer was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, Ms. Garcia was frustrated by the way Mr. Krasner’s office handled the case.

“The victims don’t have a lot of say,” she said.

Mr. Krasner is relying on the coalition that backed him four years ago, including more support from a PAC associated with George Soros, which poured $1.7 million into his first race. He has raised $887,000 since Mr. Vega entered the race. Mr. Vega has raised $734,000. The winner of the Democratic primary will be heavily favored in the November general election against the Republican candidate, Charles Peruto Jr., a defense lawyer who says that public safety is more important than civil rights. Mr. Peruto has said he will drop out of the race if Mr. Vega wins the primary.

A test for Mr. Vega will be if he can cut into Mr. Krasner’s support in neighborhoods where the gun violence is taking place, including the northern and western parts of the city. State Senator Vincent J. Hughes, whose district includes several neighborhoods experiencing violence, said he expected his constituents to continue to support Mr. Krasner and oppose the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, or F.O.P.

“They see Larry Krasner as not being afraid of the F.O.P., not being afraid to work toward justice in the truest sense of the word,” he said.

Mr. Krasner said he knew that he could not claim a perfect record. He described sidewalk encounters in which voters referred to him as “trying to be fair,” saying that the phrasing initially puzzled him.

“I could not figure out why the hell they were saying ‘trying,’” he said. “But when I heard it time and time again, I finally came to the conclusion that the reason they’re saying that is they don’t expect you to be perfect. They know you’re going to mess it up some of the time. They just can’t even believe you’re trying.”

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