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In the upcoming Democratic primary, District Attorney Larry Krasner is fighting for a second term with an emphasis on the criminal justice reforms that helped usher him into office four years ago.
His rival is former homicide prosecutor Carlos Vega, who pitches himself as a sensible alternative to Krasner, someone who would maintain popular reforms while getting tougher on gun crime amid a historic homicide surge.
Krasner casts Vega as a step backward into the days of policy that fueled mass incarceration. But unlike his challenger, he has a term in power for voters to assess. His re-election slogan: “Promises made, promises kept.”
True? A Billy Penn review finds Krasner did deliver on many points in his reform agenda, but came up short on others.
Here’s a breakdown of his major policy proposals from 2017, and where they stand today.
No one on Pennsylvania’s death row has been put to death since 1962, though prior DAs in Philadelphia routinely sought death sentencing in murder cases. During the crowded 2017 primary, Krasner touted that he was the only candidate “who explicitly pledges to never seek the death penalty.” He maintains that campaign promise in 2021.
Krasner has not sought the death penalty since taking office — but he did leave the option on the table. Shortly after his inauguration in 2018, Krasner angered some of his supporters by saying, “You never want to say never,” in reference to the DAO’s homicide sentencing committee, an appointed board that weighs in on many murder cases. Though Krasner noted he would personally never seek it, the panel’s unanimous ruling could put him in a bind. So far, four years later, that hasn’t happened.
Krasner ran unequivocally on a platform to abolish cash bail — a longstanding practice of forcing people charged with crimes to pay to be released from lockup before their trial. Criminal justice reform advocates have long criticized the practice as classist, forcing low-income people to stay behind bars while wealthier people can afford the cost of their freedom.
Note that the DA’s office does not set cash bail. It requests cash bail, the amount of which is set and confirmed by mail magistrates in the courts. Defendants only have to post 10% of the bail amount to secure their release.
Krasner admits this has been one of his biggest frustrations as DA. He maintains he still wants to abolish cash bail, while preserving an ability to detain certain offenders before trial.
His solution: do not seek bail in most cases, and seek nearly $1 million bail requests in cases deemed serious. It’s Krasner’s simulation of a yes-or-no pretrial detention system like the one used in Washington D.C., where roughly 88% of defendants are released without financial obligation before trial. By statute, the district then detains about 12% high-risk defendants while their cases play out.
But Krasner says his simulation is flawed, as the courts often reject the $1 million requests intended to ensure people remain incarcerated. Over the past year, Krasner’s prosecutors sought $999,999 bail in approximately 69% of cases involving violent offenses and 88% of first degree felonies, according to the DA’s office.
The reluctance to completely abolish bail, however, has earned the ire of some of his once-fervent supporters. The Philadelphia Bail Fund issued a critical report about the $1 million bail practice last year.
Krasner disagrees. “We do have some folks … who are of the opinion that no one, including Charles Manson and Ted Bundy, should be held pretrial, because they haven’t been convicted yet,” he told Billy Penn. “I don’t agree with that.”
However, the Philly Bail Fund report suggests the DAO employs the tool beyond alleged violent offenders. Over a study period during the pandemic, the office requested $999,999 bail in a third of cases where the lead charge was drug possession with intent to distribute, according to the report.
As a veteran civil rights attorney, Krasner made a name for himself suing the city over police misconduct, by his count more than 75 times. On the campaign trail in 2017, he vowed to bring more accountability to the scandal-plagued PPD.
Since taking office, Krasner’s office has charged 51 law enforcement officials with a range of alleged abuses — and 2021 is on pace to break a single-year record, with 10 new cases in the first four months. The vast majority were launched against PPD officers, but include members of the SEPTA Transit Police and other agencies as well.
Not all cases came from Krasner. Many charges stemmed from Police Internal Affairs investigations — like the off-duty detective charged last week with threatening to shoot two men.
In 2018, the DA’s office brought murder charges against a police officer for the first time in over two decades. (A trial is scheduled for November.) Krasner’s also charged a former police inspector caught on camera beating a Temple student with a baton during protests last summer. A judge dropped the case due to lack of evidence, but the DA has since refiled charges in another court.
Krasner ran on a promise to decriminalize more minor offenses and other crimes that have long flooded the city’s courts and jails with nonviolent offenders.
Certain offenses, like marijuana possession under a certain amount, were being diverted from the courts prior to Krasner’s tenure. But since taking office, he has stopped prosecuting most cases where the most serious charge is simple drug possession for narcotics, while offering diversion to many people on drug distribution-related charges. His office has also dramatically reduced prosecution for retail thefts and other charges like prostitution.
In the 1990s, Pennsylvania passed a law mandating people 15 or older be charged as adults if they’re alleged to commit certain offenses, like robbery or aggravated assault with a weapon. Critics have long assailed the practice as overly expensive and harmful to minors. In 2017, Krasner ran generally on improving outcomes for youth in the justice system, and diverting more cases to juvenile court.
Krasner maintains 98% of all juvenile arrests have been handled in juvenile court since taking office. Advocates praise his office for those efforts, but some say he hasn’t gone far enough to keep juvenile cases out of the adult system.
During Krasner’s first year in office, the number of juveniles charged as adults declined from 135 cases in 2017 to 106 cases in 2018. But the caseload later increased — with 143 juvenile cases in 2019, according to a DAO memo.
While 2020 data was not readily available, Sarah Morris, co-director of the Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project, says youth incarceration has spiked through the pandemic. There were 34 juveniles incarcerated at the city’s jails in Northeast Philadelphia as of this reporting — nearly triple the daily average when the pandemic began, according to census data.
Some juvenile cases begin in the adult system and eventually transfer to juvenile court, which processes between 2,000 and 2,500 cases per year.
“We’ve been glad to see that more young people’s cases are eventually transferred back to juvenile system, but we’re still seeing very high numbers of cases of juveniles charged as adults, and we believe more could be done,” Morris said.
It is unlikely the youth jail population will drop to zero any time soon. Amid a historic gun violence surge, Krasner says he maintains a hard-line on jailing people under 18 accused of shootings, saying it’s necessary to avoid retaliation.
Civil asset forfeiture
Civil asset forfeiture is the controversial law enforcement practice of seizing money or assets on mere suspicion of being involved in criminal activity. In Philadelphia, the practice has been abused by police and prosecutors for years — with incentive, as both departments receive a share of the proceeds. In 2017, Krasner vowed to reign in the practice.
Overall, asset forfeiture has fallen under Krasner’s watch. But annual reports submitted to the Pa. Attorney General indicate the practice is far from abolished. In fact, the most recent 2019 report shows an increase in cash seizures by the DA’s office, at $1.5 million, up from $1.3 million the previous year.
Vehicle and real estate seizures fell during the same period, Krasner noted, which was part of his goal. His office has also raised the minimum seizure threshold to $250.
In a 2020 report, the National Registry of Exonerations found 54% of exonerated convictions over the past 30 years were overturned due to findings of intentional or negligent mistakes by police, prosecutors, or both. One of Krasner’s more popular reform promises, he vowed to ramp up the office’s review of wrongful convictions in order to free people who have been unfairly imprisoned.
Krasner’s office has exonerated 18 people in 19 different cases over the last three years. (One person had two separate convictions reversed.) In many cases, the city has paid handsomely for police and prosecutors’ mistakes of the past in wrongful conviction settlements. Most recently, a $1.7 million payout was awarded to a Philadelphia man whose murder conviction was overturned after 11 years in prison. With their lives returned to them, people exonerated under Krasner’s watch count themselves among his biggest supporters.
His office says it has submitted more commutation applications to the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons than any prior DA — 40 to date.