Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
An initiative to provide nonpartisan, independent elections journalism for southwestern Pennsylvania.

GOP attorney general candidates clash over Krasner, criminal justice reform

Williams Campaign / Sunday Campaign
The Republican candidates for Pennsylvania attorney general squared off in Harrisburg on Thursday during a televised debate that highlighted some sharp differences between the two hopefuls.

The Republican candidates for Pennsylvania attorney general squared off in Harrisburg on Thursday during a televised debate that highlighted some sharp differences between the two hopefuls.

Dave Sunday, the York County district attorney, emphasized that he was the candidate with more criminal courtroom experience. He also touted the state Republican Party’s endorsement of his candidacy, as well as what he called a long record of working with others. He said violent crime decreased during his tenure as DA in York County.

Meanwhile, Craig Williams, a state representative from just outside Philadelphia, attacked Sunday for not securing a conviction in a specific murder case. And he also took shots at elected Democrats, especially Gov. Josh Shapiro and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.

Williams was the house manager in the effort to impeach Krasner. After a successful impeachment vote in November 2022, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court halted the process the following January, writing that the charges were “not enough to create a constitutionally sound basis for impeaching and removing” Krasner.

Sunday said he did not support Williams’ effort to impeach Krasner and instead supported working to remove him at the at the ballot box. “If he is removed, we don't know who will take his place,” Sunday said.

Williams said Krasner has been soft on crime, citing his prosecution of a Philadelphia police officer for murder in 2018 after the officer shot and killed a 30-year-old man. Elements of that prosecution earned a rebuke from the state Supreme Court, and the charges were ultimately dismissed.

If elected, Williams said one of his top priorities would be to prosecute public officials like Krasner. “If you use your official office to oppress somebody's constitutional or statutory rights, that's a crime,” Williams said. “And I can tell you that's going to be an emphasis in our public corruption unit.

Sunday, by contrast, said that his office would try to tackle the state’s mental health crisis. “A lot of our crimes that are occurring are people that have severe mental health problems,” he said. “They don't have anywhere to go. There's no hospitals to take them.”

Tough on crime

Being tough on crime was the best way for Republicans to get elected for the first time in more than a decade, Williams said. He would push felons who are caught with a firearm to be prosecuted in federal court where the courts can hand down longer and tougher sentences.

The sentences are off the charts compared to the state, and there is no parole in the federal system,” he said.

Sunday said Republicans would win by focusing on the issues important to the many small cities and towns throughout the state, such as the “issues with their prisons and issues with probation and parole and issues, very importantly, with the juvenile justice system.”

Sunday emphasized his ability to work with communities, faith-based organizations and police officers. He said his work has led to a sharp reduction in homicides and gang violence. Williams criticized Sunday’s work as a prosecutor, citing an article that says York has one of the state’s highest homicide rates.

“York County is directly north of Baltimore, and as such, we have a lot of challenges that other people don't face,” Sunday said.

Criminal justice reform

The two candidates diverged on criminal justice reform issues.

Williams said that the Attorney General’s office should have a mandatory, secondary review over all sentencing decisions in officer-involved shootings. Williams blamed Democrats for creating “distrust of our people in blue, our men and women who are serving our community,” and said the additional oversight would help restore trust.

Sunday said the additional review was unnecessary because outside police departments already investigate officer shootings. “We live in a world and in a nation where there is a tremendous amount, especially in Pennsylvania, of belief that the local areas are in the best position to make decisions that impact the people around them,” Sunday said. Sunday emphasized that he’s been endorsed by some police unions.

Neither candidate is in favor of legalizing marijuana. Williams said he knows the idea that marijuana is a gateway drug is “antiquated,” but he said his brother died from addiction in 2020 and that his brother started with marijuana. “I want to get to a trauma-informed therapeutic methodology with regard to addiction while still being hardcore on distribution,” Williams said.

Sunday said his office has routinely prosecuted drug cases both large and small where he increased the number of detectives working on drug cases. “The number one issue facing Pennsylvanians is the fentanyl epidemic,” Sunday said.

Williams downplayed the persistence of racial disparities in the justice system. “I do think there historically have been some,” he said. “I don't know that that's necessarily the case today in the prevalence that it was, say, in the 70s and 80s.

After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Sunday spent substantial time listening to his constituents, he said. “What I discovered was that we have a community, and — whether we agree with them or not — they firmly believe that there are disparities in the criminal justice system,” Sunday said. “And the only way that you can fix that is by working together, building trust.

Disagreements with Democrats

Following the 2020 presidential election, Sunday assigned detectives to look into allegations of voter fraud; they didn’t find any. Williams criticized Shapiro — who was attorney general at the time — for not doing more to look into potential voter fraud.

Both Republicans (unlike all five Democrats running) said they would pursue capital punishment cases. Sunday said he had experience prosecuting capital punishment cases, while Williams accused Gov. Shapiro of flip-flopping on the issue

Both candidates said it was up to the state legislature, not the state Supreme Court, to determine abortion rights. Sunday said he would enforce whatever abortion laws are on the books. Williams emphasized that he would prosecute doctors who perform late-term abortions now.

They both said it was illegal for Gov. Shapiro to enter into a regional greenhouse gas initiative without legislative action. But while Sunday said “no” without further elaboration when asked about the effort’s legality, Williams emphasized that he would consider it part of his job to counter Shapiro.

“The Attorney General's office has a role to play in challenging this governor,” he said. “Every time he picks up his pen and does something unconstitutional.”

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.