Four years into his experiment with reforming Philadelphia’s criminal justice system, Larry Krasner overwhelmingly won his primary race for reelection to the office of district attorney on Tuesday.
With 74 percent of votes counted, Krasner led his Democratic primary challenger Carlos Vega 65 percent to 35 percent, according to the Associated Press. Vega conceded the race shortly before midnight on Tuesday, and Krasner is all but assured victory in the November general election.
“We in this movement for criminal justice reform just won a big one,” Krasner said in a victory speech. “Four years ago, we promised reform, and a focus on serious crime. People believed what were, at that point, ideas. Promises. And they voted us into office with a mandate. We kept those promises. They saw what we did. And they put us back in office because of what we’ve done.”
Vega, a former homicide prosecutor who was one of 31 staffers Krasner fired during his first week as district attorney, had run a campaign attacking Krasner’s policies as soft on crime and was boosted by one of the largest expenditures from the city’s police union in more than a decade.
Though he said his campaign was not pro-police, Vega campaigned with Philadelphia’s FOP Lodge 5, a local chapter of the Fraternal Order of the Police, the largest police union in the country. The police union gave more than $100,000 to Protect Our Police PAC, a political action committee that launched last year to push Krasner out of office. Vega and POP PAC tried to distance themselves from each other throughout the race: POP PAC claimed it wasn’t supporting Vega but ran a video encouraging Republican voters to switch their registration to vote in the Democratic primary against Krasner. Vega renounced POP PAC after the group sent a fundraising email blaming George Floyd for his own death. The group spent $45,000 on TV ads attacking Krasner in the final month of the race.
Since his election in 2017, Krasner has become a symbol of the burgeoning movement to elect reform-minded prosecutors. “Krasner has been kind of a model,” said Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns at Color of Change, a racial justice group that supported several such prosecutors’ bids and endorsed Krasner. “I can’t tell you how many potential DA candidates I have talked to who lead with, ‘I’m going to be the Larry Krasner of fill-in-the-blank city.’”
But Krasner’s election and the reforms he enacted as soon as he took office also sparked a fierce backlash — making him a national target for law enforcement groups and prominent Republicans. Former President Donald Trump, for example, claimed in 2019 that prosecutors in Philadelphia and Chicago “have decided not prosecute many criminals” who pose a threat to public safety.
Krasner’s reelection bid came as an increase in gun violence in many U.S. cities — including Philadelphia — and calls to reduce the scope of policing prompted a return to tough-on-crime rhetoric and rebuke of reformist efforts. But other reform-oriented DAs in cities with considerable gun violence — like Chicago’s Kim Foxx and St. Louis’s Kim Gardner — recently won reelection bids despite sometimes vicious attacks on them.
“People want to see these prosecutors’ offices being focused on bringing down incarceration rates, and holding police accountable.”
According to a recent poll by Data for Progress, many of the reforms Krasner enacted remain popular with voters in Pennsylvania. Sixty-four percent of people surveyed expressed support for limitations to the use of cash bail, 60 percent were in favor of the decriminalization of drug possession, 75 percent favored sentence reductions for good behavior, and 68 percent supported terminating probation when supervision is no longer needed. Just this week, a Philadelphia City Council committee advanced a measure outlining procedures for a new police oversight board that will go to a full council vote later this week — the result of years of organizing by local activists who have pushed to create a body with power and funding to hold police accountable for misconduct, with renewed energy after police met protests last summer with brute force.
“With all the noise that goes on, the attacks, what have you, we know that the agenda is still very popular,” said Roberts. “People want to see these prosecutors’ offices being focused on bringing down incarceration rates, and holding police accountable. And they’re actually looking for other solutions for violence, they’re not willing to buy into the narrative that they hear from police unions and conservative politicians.”
Krasner was elected in 2017 on a promise to end mass incarceration in the city and transform the way prosecutors approach crime. At the time, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch described Krasner’s win as “a revolution.” The win by a former criminal defense and civil rights attorney who had never worked as a prosecutor until his election ushered a new era into an office that had been run for two decades by one of the “deadliest prosecutors” in the country, Lynne Abraham, whose office sent 108 people to death row.
Krasner’s office pledged never to seek the death penalty, stopped requesting cash bail for low-level offenses, expanded diversion programs for some gun offenses, and stopped prosecuting marijuana use and sex work. He also took a hard line on police accountability, brought charges against more than 50 officers accused of misconduct, and instituted a “do not call” list of officers with a history of misconduct and dishonesty that his office deemed unreliable witnesses and would not call to testify in court. The district attorney revamped a conviction integrity unit that has helped to exonerate 20 people since he took office in 2018.
The DA’s decarceral approach drew criticism from city residents and police forces who claimed that Krasner’s policies drove a spike in gun violence in the city last year. Krasner has also faced pushback from the left, including some of his supporters and groups like the Philadelphia Bail Fund, which said he hasn’t lived up to his campaign promises to end cash bail. Krasner’s office has continued to request high-dollar figures for cash bail in certain cases, and it’s an issue the DA acknowledges he hasn’t solved.
“I think he’s tried to figure out how to split the difference between addressing a bail system that has people incarcerated, pre-trial, who really shouldn’t be, and the responsibility he has around addressing gun violence in the city,” said Roberts, of Color of Change, adding that overall, Krasner earned a “passing grade as a reform prosecutor.”
The fight over Krasner’s handling of cash bail is just one that highlights the limitations facing prosecutors running on promises of reform, said Chenjerai Kumanyika, a scholar and journalist in Philadelphia, and assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. Even some of Krasner’s allies are clear-eyed about the impracticality of investing in progressive prosecutors as a long-term solution to the problem of mass incarceration, Kumanyika explained.
“The progressive prosecutor still relies a little bit on the idea that transformative change relies on electing the right person.”
“The insight I’ve seen from some movement actors and organizers is that the progressive prosecutor still relies a little bit on the idea that transformative change relies on electing the right person,” he said. “Krasner seemed like that person,” he added, but “the limitation of that is that, one: it still has that kind of, we’re still just trying to get the right person in, the sort of illusion that we indulge in that a DA can be the advocate for the movement.”
The other limitation, as Kumayika described it, is that the model of a “progressive prosecutor” doesn’t work everywhere. “It leaves us sort of without a real plan in places where you’re not going to be able to elect a progressive prosecutor,” he said, proposing a shift toward a vision of electing “an accountable prosecutor” instead. “What that does, is it forces us to turn our attention to building our movement.”
Even as people who hoped the so-called progressive prosecutor movement would fundamentally overhaul the U.S. criminal justice system, including the lack of police accountability, were sometimes left disappointed, there is no question that Krasner’s 2017 election helped build momentum around district attorney races across the country. Until then, incumbent prosecutors were rarely challenged and even more rarely defeated. But Krasner’s win in Philadelphia, as well as Kim Foxx’s in Chicago a year earlier, contributed to fueling nationwide awareness and enthusiasm around previously low-turnout elections. Their elections also shaped public understanding that DA races could be competitive and a space for substantial policy debate — drawing even more candidates to enter such races.
While at the time of his first campaign Krasner was perhaps the most reform-oriented prosecutor to be elected, his win has also inspired many would-be prosecutors pushing for even greater change, said Roberts, citing San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin as an example. “Showing that someone with Krasner’s agenda can get elected I think encouraged tons more people, some with even more transformational politics than him, to get into these races.” After Krasner, reform-minded prosecutors were elected in other large cities, including Los Angeles, Dallas, Boston, and Atlanta.
As “progressive prosecutor” became a catchphrase and the movement gained steam and racked up wins, candidates with little genuine commitment to decarceration sometimes co-opted the language of true reformers. Still, the successes of the movement have transformed the way voters think of prosecutors and the unique power they yield within the justice system.
“Communities want something different. They’re no longer embracing the failed tough-on-crime paradigms of the past.”
Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor and executive director of the justice nonprofit Fair and Just Prosecution, credited early challengers to the system, including Krasner, with “forcing a dialogue,” in an interview with The Intercept. “The starting point has dramatically shifted over the last few years,” she said. “And I think it’s by virtue of the fact that communities want something different. They’re no longer embracing the failed tough-on-crime paradigms of the past.”
Krinsky noted that her group currently works with around 70 new DAs from across the political spectrum who have made a commitment to shrinking the carceral system and increasing transparency, accountability, and fairness. While that is a fraction of the roughly 2,000 elected prosecutors across the country, they represent more than 20 percent of the country’s population because many of them are from large urban areas — an indication of the broad impact of the movement around DA elections.
In Manhattan, which will hold a primary election for district attorney next month, several candidates are taking a reformist approach. “The conversation is a very different one than we might have expected in a large urban area three or four years ago,” said Krinsky. “It really is a sign of times that have changed.”
The effort to build widespread awareness and engagement around local elections was also replicated beyond DA races, with similar organizing taking aim at sheriff and comptroller races, for instance. “We definitely see people replicating the model,” said Roberts.
But as prosecutors seeking to transform the ways of their offices racked up wins across the country, they faced backlash and obstructionism, particularly from police and their unions, though sometimes from within their offices as well. In some states, politically appointed federal prosecutors stepped in to take over cases, including protest-related ones, that local DAs had declined to prosecute. “Change is never easy and certainly there are many interests that have a vested stake in preserving the status quo, whether that’s bail bond companies or correctional leaders or police unions,” said Krinsky. “They don’t want to necessarily shrink the size of the system, and they don’t necessarily embrace increased accountability.”
In Philadelphia, the strongest and earliest backlash to Krasner’s election came from the police union. The president of Philadelphia’s police union, John McNesby, made numerous appearances on Fox News and other outlets attacking Krasner’s policies, claiming that the DA disliked law enforcement and calling on voters to support Vega.
Philadelphia’s FOP Lodge 5 spent more than it had in any of the city’s last seven electoral cycles.
Philadelphia’s FOP Lodge 5, a chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, spent $140,000 to oust Krasner, more than it had in any of the city’s last seven electoral cycles, including $25,200 from the union PAC directly to Vega’s campaign (the maximum contribution over two years) as well as $113,000 to the Protect Our Police PAC. Throughout the campaign, POP PAC spent more than $130,000 on TV ads attacking Krasner. The Pennsylvania chapter of the FOP also gave $12,500 to Vega’s campaign.
Last month, the police union stationed a Mister Softee ice cream truck in front of the DA’s office giving out free ice cream, a gesture to highlight how, they claimed, Krasner was “soft on crime,” bringing the truck back in the weeks leading up to the race.
Police efforts to fight Krasner were no match for his campaign, which raised $1.35 million, compared to Vega’s $600,000. Krasner’s campaign was backed by outside groups including Shaun King’s Real Justice PAC. He was also backed by the political action committee for the Guardian Civic League of Philadelphia — a chapter of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, which represents Black cops in the city — and by Club Valiants, a fraternal group representing Black and Latino firefighters in Philadelphia.
The animosity between Krasner and Vega was palpable throughout the race, and not just because Vega was in the process of suing the DA for age discrimination related to his firing. Vega launched his campaign by attacking Krasner, saying his office didn’t care about victims and that it has made Philadelphia a more dangerous place.
The former homicide prosecutor also accused Krasner of “spreading lies” about his record in relation to a wrongful conviction case that Vega had helped to retry. The back and forth prompted the Innocence Project, which represented Anthony Wright during his retrial, to issue a statement denouncing Vega’s portrayal of his role in the case in comments to The Intercept and to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Vega accused the Innocence Project of bringing up the case to boost Krasner’s campaign. After a heated debate on May 5, Vega was recorded on a hot mic asking Krasner if the DA had security downstairs and if he wanted to give Vega a ride home.
Attempts by Vega and his backers in law enforcement to pin gun violence in the city on Krasner didn’t resonate with Philadelphians who have interacted with the criminal legal system, said City Council Member Kendra Brooks. “We’re talking about the same system that has disinvested into all the things that they needed to be successful, right?” she said. “And it’s also the system that perpetuates this cycle of violence, and crime and trauma that also puts them in the ground. And in communities, you can’t separate any of that.”
Update: May 19, 2021
This article has been updated to include election results from the Associated Press.