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Prosecutor's Reelection Pits Reform Against Rising Gun Crime

In this Friday, May 14, 2021 photo, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner speaks during a news conference where the Guardian Civic League and Club Valiants, the fraternal organizations that represent Black and Latino police and firefighters, endorsed him for the upcoming Democratic primary, in Philadelphia.
Claudia Lauer
In this Friday, May 14, 2021 photo, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner speaks during a news conference where the Guardian Civic League and Club Valiants, the fraternal organizations that represent Black and Latino police and firefighters, endorsed him for the upcoming Democratic primary, in Philadelphia.

Voters in Pennsylvania will cast ballots Tuesday in the Democratic Primary for Philadelphia District Attorney that pits a reform-minded incumbent against a veteran homicide prosecutor, likely deciding the future of the office in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.

But Philadelphians will also be casting votes in what many pundits nationally say is the first referendum on whether a wave of prosecutors elected on promises of criminal justice reforms — measures like shorter probation and parole and a curtailing of cash bail that disproportionately keeps poor defendants confined pretrial — can survive a rising tide of gun violence and homicides across the country.

Much of the backlash from critics in Philadelphia and in other cities that elected progressive prosecutors places blame for the increased gun violence at the feet of those district attorneys. But supporters have pushed back noting that increased violence during the pandemic amid reduced social services and economic instability are hitting cities with both progressive district attorneys and traditional law-and-order prosecutors.

Incumbent Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, a 60-year-old longtime civil rights and defense attorney, faces a challenge from Carlos Vega, who worked in the district attorney’s office for 35 years under five administrations.

A Philadelphia judge ordered sheriff's deputies to seize pro-Vega fliers being handed out in at least three wards Tuesday, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. An unidentified group created a sample ballot incorrectly saying the city's Democratic committee had endorsed Vega even though the committee decided to stay neutral in the race.

The fliers did not include required information on who had paid for them. A lawyer for Vega's campaign told the judge it was not responsible for the fliers, but Krasner's campaign said this was just the latest example of the kinds of dirty politics that his critics have been playing.

Krasner won election in 2017 from a crowded field by billing himself as the outsider candidate capable of making radical changes.

“Our promise fundamentally was that we would focus on serious crime while bringing reform. We said we would do something about mass incarceration. We have cut the future years of incarceration in half,” Krasner said Saturday, speaking during a break in last-minute campaigning and efforts to turn out votes in a non-presidential election year, an important factor in a race where nearly 7,000 voters had switched parties from Republican to Democrat in the lead up to the primaries.

The current team of prosecutors also cut the years of future parole and probation supervision by nearly two-thirds compared to the previous administration, Krasner said. Pennsylvania has gotten a lot of attention for being an outlier with the length of probation and parole terms far above the national average.

Krasner strengthened the office's conviction integrity unit, which has helped free nearly 20 wrongfully convicted people, and also touts grant funding used to create the office's first data team that looks at the long-term effect of policies, hiring the office's first criminologist and playing a role in the ending of a 10-year contract that shared data with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Trump was trying to deport victims of domestic violence... and we cannot have a world where they are afraid to walk into a courthouse or afraid to seek help,” Krasner said.

Vega says he would increase prosecutions of serious crimes while continuing to push for reforms and better ways of addressing addiction and mental illness. Vega, 64, has accused Krasner of age discrimination after he and many of the senior attorneys were fired during Krasner's transition into office.

Krasner said he fired prosecutors who did not share his vision for a radical shift in how the office operates. He said during the last contentious candidate debate that he had tried cases against Vega and called into question the ethics of some of his trial tactics.

“Krasner has spent a lot of time trying to rewrite my history,” Vega said, emphasizing he is a lifelong Democrat, who worked two jobs as a single dad to put his daughter through college.

“We do need reform and we do need safety. The primary function of the district attorney is to keep the community safe and bring reform when we can," he said. “We can't incarcerate our way out of this, and we have to be smart about how we go about that reform.”

Vega's plans include bringing federal law enforcement partners to the table to press what he says are a small number of people responsible for gun crimes. He wants to create an earn and learn approach to supervision, where each benchmark a person earns — completing an addiction treatment program, earning a diploma or degree, completing parenting classes — would knock time off of their probation or parole.

The Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 5 in Philadelphia has sunk more money and effort into unseating Krasner than perhaps any political race in recent memory, said Lodge President John McNesby. The group has backed Vega and hammered home messaging that blames rising homicides and gun violence on Krasner. On a recent sunny afternoon, McNesby handed out soft serve cones after parking a Mr. Softee ice cream truck in front of the district attorney's office with the message that Krasner is soft on crime.

While he agrees with the message, Vega has tried to distance himself from the FOP. He noted last week that the majority of highway billboards paid for by the group don't feature his face or mention his name. Instead they feature anti-Krasner messages.

“They decided to endorse me, but if you read their messages, they are against my opponent," Vega said. "I'm not concerned about the FOP; I'm concerned about having a relationship with the police department and its leadership."

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia chapters of the Guardian Civic League and Club Valiants — fraternal organizations representing Black and Latino police and firefighters — endorsed Krasner for another term. The groups last year had fought with the larger police union and the local firefighters union over endorsements of former President Donald Trump, who they said supported racists and did not represent them.

“When they tell us that Larry Krasner is the sole purpose for the uptick in crime, we know that’s fake news,” said Rochelle Bilal, Philadelphia's Sheriff who spoke in her personal capacity at the news conference.

As the founding member and executive director of the nonprofit Fair and Just Prosecution, Miriam Aroni Krinsky said she's seen a lot of pushback against progressive prosecutors including fierce opposition to Kim Foxx in Chicago's Cook County and to Kim Gardener in St. Louis.

“Sadly this isn’t the first example that we’ve seen of pushback from the FOP or local unions or others who are very much invested in the status quo and are not interested in us moving away from past punitive practices that have not made us safer,” said Krinsky, also a former prosecutor.

She said many of the local union leaders and critics have taken a page from the playbook of Trump officials including former Attorney General William Barr, who during several public events tried to place blame for increases in crime on progressive prosecutors and their reforms.

“People in these communities are smarter than they are given credit for. They realized that their communities needed help not handcuffs when they elected or re-elected these prosecutors," Krinsky said.

Whoever wins the primary will go on to face Republican challenger and well-known defense attorney Charles Peruto Jr. in November.