Ahead of midterm elections earlier this month, Republicans talked about one thing above all else: crime. They said Democrats were to blame for what they claimed was an unprecedented spike in crime, and spent tens of millions of dollars on ads hammering that message, hoping it would help deliver what was widely anticipated to be a red wave.
The plan failed and Democrats emerged victorious, retaining control of the U.S. Senate and winning several key governor’s races.
Democrats who embraced a range of criminal justice reforms won races in contested swing states, including Pennsylvania. The party had one of the most successful midterm cycles under an incumbent president of either party in decades.
For some Democrats, the success is cause for celebration, but it’s also evidence that the party should have campaigned harder on criminal justice reform. One such Democrat, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, pointed to John Fetterman and Josh Shapiro’s races in Pennsylvania for a U.S. Senate seat and the governor’s mansion, respectively. Both had embraced some criminal justice reforms, both faced relentless soft-on-crime attacks, and both emerged victorious.
“It is possible that criminal justice reform, like any other issue that fundamentally touches large numbers of reluctant voters, could be the salvation of democracy,” Krasner said in an interview on an episode of Deconstructed. “It really could drastically increase voter turnout.”
Krasner’s remarks came amid an unprecedented effort by Republicans in the Pennsylvania Legislature to remove him from office. After a series of hearings, an ad hoc committee — formed to purportedly address his misdeeds, which relied on flimsy evidence — didn’t make a recommendation but vowed to keep investigating Krasner indefinitely. After Democrats won the state House last month, hard-line Republicans sought to push ahead with the impeachment in the lame-duck session. After some political wrangling, the Republican leader scheduled the vote and Krasner was impeached. He is awaiting a trial in the state Senate, a logistical predicament given the dwindling session, where impeachment is expected to be an uphill battle for Republicans.
While Krasner commended Fetterman for embracing his work on the state clemency board in the face of Republican attacks, the reform-minded district attorney was quick to note that many Democrats shy away from talking about the well-documented ill effects of mass incarceration.
“Rather than the Democratic Party answering directly this Willie Horton-style attack on big cities that are diverse and attack on big city prosecutors who are reform prosecutors, rather than the Democratic Party attacking it head-on,” he said, “they did that dumb thing that, sadly, they sometimes do, which is go Republican-lite, get off in the corner, try not to talk about it.”
Krasner has been a lightning rod on issues of criminal justice reform since his campaign to become Philadelphia district attorney in 2017. He ran as an unabashed reformer in a city that jailed more people than any other in the Northeast. He pledged to prosecute police for misconduct, reform bail, and generally slow the pipeline to incarceration in the city. Many of his promises were fulfilled, then met with fierce resistance, with Republican lawmakers attempting to strip his authority. Krasner prevailed and sailed to reelection last year against a police-backed challenger.
Some of those who deal regularly in the criminal justice system agreed with Krasner that campaigning boldly on reforms could help galvanize turnout. There’s no separation between people harmed by violence and people harmed by mass incarceration, said Robert Saleem Holbrook, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, a public interest law firm that has opposed Krasner’s impeachment.
“We need Democrats talking more about that than trying to constantly distinguish themselves as, ‘Well, I’m just as tough on crime as the Republicans,’ because they’re going to lose that battle every time,” he said. “People aren’t going to come out for people who are hedging their bets.”