Wins for Larry Krasner and New Allies Signal Reformers’ Growing Reach

Progressive gains in Philadelphia’s primaries for judge and DA showcase a movement intent on taking over broader swaths of the criminal legal system.

Daniel Nichanian   |    May 20, 2021

Photo from Philadelphia DA’s office/Facebook

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

Progressive gains in Philadelphia’s primaries for judge and DA showcase a movement intent on taking over broader swaths of the criminal legal system.

Philadelphia’s police union and other detractors of criminal justice reform bet big against District Attorney Larry Krasner. They triggered the expectation, deeply-ingrained in public consciousness, that tough-on-crime attacks are what sell politically and that backlash from law enforcement spells doom for progressives who hope to upend the criminal legal system.

Instead reformers gained new ground in Philadelphia’s elections on Tuesday. Far from firing Krasner, voters gave him new allies.

Krasner triumphed 66 percent to 34 percent in the Democratic primary against Carlos Vega, a former prosecutor who attacked him for being too lenient and who was backed by the police union. Krasner won by even more lopsided margins in Philadelphia’s predominantly Black wards. He still faces Republican Chuck Peruto in a November general election, but he is heavily favored in this staunchly blue city. And he may be able to count on a more favorable judiciary going forward.

Seven of the eight open slots on the Court of Common Pleas, which handles major criminal proceedings in the city, went to candidates endorsed by Reclaim Philadelphia, a progressive group that supported Krasner in the DA race. (These candidates will also go on to the general election, but winning the Democratic primary makes them likely to prevail. No Republicans filed for these positions.)

Krasner over his first term faced resistance from some judges, similar to the pushback that courts around the country have put up against reform-minded prosecutors. 

But Tuesday’s results signaled that the same activists who have transformed DA races in recent years are succeeding at putting the spotlight on other facets of the system as well. In Philadelphia, they pressured judicial candidates, typically prone to rhetorical platitudes that ignore the power of the office, to share their views on issues that have marked Krasner’s tenure and embrace reform-minded policies.

Since Krasner’s win in 2017, the list of prosecutors who have been elected on similar vows to reduce incarceration has grown year after year, reaching counties small and big, urban, suburban, and rural. In 2020, progressives won judicial elections with the goal of “flipping the bench” in Las Vegas and New Orleans. And yet the expectation that this movement’s downfall is just around the corner has not waned, fueled this year by the notion that voters will surely respond to a nationwide uptick in crime by blaming racial justice protests and criminal justice reforms, rather than the punitive practices that reformers like Krasner say have harmed communities and their economic livelihoods.

Many candidates who emerged victorious in Philadelphia’s judicial elections signaled during the campaign that they were sympathetic to those reform arguments.

Nick Kamau, a former public defender who now works in private practice, was asked an open-ended question in a candidate survey about his priorities as judge. He volunteered that he would be more skeptical of police. “Too often judges accept the testimony from law enforcement officers and Commonwealth expert witnesses without scrutinizing the veracity of the testimony,” he said. 

Kamau received the most votes in the 16-person field. (The top eight secured nominations for eight slots.)

Betsy Wahl, another former public defender who won on Tuesday, answered the same question by saying she would “ensure that my courtroom is a model for reducing mass incarceration by utilizing all possible alternatives to detention.” She added that she would also guard against an “excessive” reliance on probation; Pennsylvania burdens people with court supervision at record rates.

“Far too many people are living under oppressive limitations on their freedom,” Wahl said. 

These questionnaires were created by the Judge Accountability Table, a coalition of local groups that are working to change the legal system, including Reclaim Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Bail Fund, DecarceratePA, and the Abolitionist Law Center.

A similar effort succeeded this week in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh). Local reformers championed a slate of eight candidates who were running for that county’s Court of Common Pleas on platforms that included curbing sentencing, bail, and evictions. Five won the Democratic primary on Tuesday, including Lisa Middleman, a public defender who unsuccessfully ran for DA there in 2019 by saying she wanted to join forces with Krasner.

“Historically judges have used the discretionary power of the Court of Common Pleas to breed this system of mass incarceration,” Wasi Mohamed, a founding organizer with UNITE, told The Appeal: Political Report last month. “Now we have people who are actually advocates against it wanting to take these seats.” 

How judges use this discretionary power is directly relevant to the policy debates that have shaped Krasner’s tenure and defined his re-election bid. This too is where Tuesday’s results in Philadelphia vindicate his outlook.

Krasner, for instance, has set up an immigration counsel in the DA’s office who is meant to focus on how to charge some immigrant defendants or negotiate pleas with them in a way that shields them from deportation, which is a consequence that some criminal convictions carry for noncitizens. Vega attacked Krasner at a debate last week over such maneuvers, which judges can resist by rejecting deals that have been crafted to be immigration-neutral.

In their questionnaires, Kamau and Wahl both expressed support for this approach. “The judiciary must be mindful of the consequences of an adjudication or conviction for an undocumented person,” wrote Wahl.

Wahl also said “addiction is a disease and should never be criminalized.” As the Political Report analyzed last month, Krasner has outright dismissed a growing share of drug possession cases. Wahl also wants to see safe injection sites, as does Krasner. 

To tackle the city’s sky-high rate of people on probation, Krasner has capped the length of probation terms his office seeks. Vega was opposed to this cap, the Political Report reported in March, and here too judges can hinder the goal since they hold the ultimate power to sentence. 

Michele Hangley, another candidate who prevailed in Tuesday’s judicial primary, acknowledged in her questionnaire that “Pennsylvania imposes extraordinarily long periods of probation … [that] often make individuals more, rather than less likely to reoffend.” As a judge, she said, she would “take the issues with lengthy probationary tails into account when imposing sentences.” 

Reclaim Philadelphia had also endorsed one candidate for the city’s Municipal Court, which handles lower-level and initial proceedings in criminal and civil cases; that candidate won. Another slot went to a candidate who talked about the need for tenants to have legal counsel. Evictions are a growing issue in judicial elections. 

As progressives gain more power in local government, though, it will mean that Krasner has less room to blame shortcomings on other parts of the criminal legal system that have stalled change in the past. (He will still have to deal with the state attorney general, many judges with little interest in reform, and hostile Republican lawmakers.) The departure of Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney William McSwain, a chief antagonist of his first term, removes another layer of institutional opposition.

Krasner drew criticism from reformers throughout his first term for practices like seeking excessive bail in some cases, not going far enough in outright ending the prosecution of drug possession, and allowing that deportation should be on the table for some immigrant defendants. He has also faced calls to cut the budget of his office to help reduce the footprint of the criminal legal system in a manner that can outlast the politics of one DA.

Candidates elsewhere in the country—many of whom say they have drawn inspiration from Krasner—are proposing bigger reforms than he has on some of these issues, whether in promising to outright decline entire categories of cases or vowing to push for major budget cuts. 

Even the audacious proposition Krasner embodied—that fiery outsiders might be able to come in to shake up DA offices—has come to feel far more routine. The more provocative efforts are now happening in the battle for other offices such as judgeships, sheriffs, and even high bailiffs.

The reform movement has moved past needing Krasner as its emblem, and that’s perhaps the biggest victory for progressive advocates showcased by Tuesday’s elections.