Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner speaks during a news conference in March 2021

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Ahead of a competitive Democratic primary that’s coming amid an ongoing gun violence surge, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner finds himself in a bind.

His base expects him to hold the line on promises to radically reform the local criminal justice system. But his political position seems to erode with each gunshot victim — making those promises harder to keep.

Consider the shooting of Daniel Coleman.

In January, the 37-year-old father took a bullet to the head outside his West Philadelphia home. The shooting was one of thousands that spilled blood on city streets over the past year. But after Coleman miraculously woke up in the hospital, the gun violence victim learned he was under arrest after his own shooting — and it was Krasner’s office that OK’d the charges.

Officers said they found a gun near the scene, and believed it to be Coleman’s. Since he’d been on probation for the past 17 years, following a guilty verdict in a robbery, he was not legally allowed to carry a firearm.

“How I see it is that they arrested him for his own shooting,” Coleman’s fianceé Eva Bristoe, who witnessed the shooting with their young son, recounted. “They didn’t arrest, or even care about, the person who shot him.”

The DA’s office sought $750,000 bail on Coleman’s alleged firearm violation plus reckless endangerment charges. Even after video evidence emerged showing Coleman was not carrying a gun and DNA results from the gun came back inconclusive, court records show the DA persisted, right up until a judge tossed the case earlier this month.

Krasner’s office maintains a larger investigation remains ongoing into the Coleman case, but it’s a situation that might have surprised some of the DA’s supporters four years ago, when he soared into office on a promise to end cash bail and restore integrity to criminal prosecutions.

Facing blame for the tide of murders, Krasner’s office has ramped up illegal firearm prosecutions by 115% over the past year and has sought upwards of million dollar bail for most cases involving a gun — even in cases like Coleman’s, where hard evidence is thin.

More aggressive gun prosecution has done little to appease Krasner’s fiercest critics, like Philly’s vocal police union, but it has spurred backlash from his left-leaning base. A DA who ran on abolishing cash bail, they note, now routinely seeks sums of nearly $1 million to keep potentially dangerous people incarcerated before their trial.

Krasner depicts these critiques as a warped reading of the “no cash bail” rallying cry. He says his office uses high-dollar bail to simulate jurisdictions like Washington D.C., which eliminated cash systems yet still detain some defendants accused of serious crimes ahead of trial.

“We do have some abolitionists…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,” Krasner said. “I don’t agree with that.”

DA Krasner is booed by protesters in July 2020 Credit: Katie Meyer / WHYY

Krasner says he’s not in a lose-lose situation, but the overarching dynamic frustrates the 60-year-old attorney — a national sensation who now stars in an eight-part docuseries about his reform work.

How to appease two innately opposed criminal justice philosophies while facing a broad public expectation to bring down crime? On hot button-issues like the Mumia Abu Jamal retrial, Krasner says he wonders if his critics on both sides are coordinating protests so they don’t overlap.

“We often find ourselves in a position where some of the most progressive, most left people are angry and so are some of the most right, most ‘hang-’em-high’ people,” Krasner said. “It is a constant diet of each side saying, ‘The DA is so blatantly unfair.’”

Now, he must also convince voters he can deliver on his reform promises and reduce the bloodshed ahead of his May 18 matchup against former homicide prosecutor Carlos Vega.

But by his own description, some of Krasner’s policies have shifted from his campaign trail promises over his first term, with a Billy Penn review finding that the prosecutor has jettisoned some parts of his agenda, while maintaining others with notable success.

✅ View a ‘report card’ on Krasner’s first term promises

Perhaps as a result of ramped up prosecutions, the city’s once-shrinking jail population is rising again. And in other areas, like juvenile imprisonment or civil asset forfeiture, Krasner’s progressive supporters say he has come up short.

Some are incensed he’s backtracked on progressive policy promises.

“It’s very concerning and frustrating that [Krasner] hasn’t taken the steps he’s committed to,” said A’Brianna Morgan, co-founder of Reclaim Philadelphia, a progressive backer for Krasner. “Our biggest concern right now is not taking a step backward.”

Yet even disgruntled progressive groups are preparing to back him again for a second term against a challenger who they view as representing an innate return to decades of more heavy-handed law enforcement. In that regard, the re-election fight is a test for the political viability of a nationwide movement to enact criminal justice reforms.

In many realms, Krasner has upheld broad goals — reducing or diverting small ball drug and property crime prosecutions, exonerating 18 wrongfully imprisoned people or cutting Philadelphia’s highest-in-the-nation probation population by nearly a third. His office has also prosecuted more than 50 law enforcement officials, mostly police, for various shades of illegal misconduct.

Krasner in May 2018, a few months after taking office Credit: Phillip Jackson / Billy Penn

From sweeping reforms to harsh realities

During his 2017 primary campaign, it was clear tides were shifting around urban law enforcement. Virtually all of Krasner’s Democratic rivals at the time presented themselves as reformers to a degree, much like their soon-to-be-incarcerated predecessor Seth Williams had nearly a decade earlier.

Krasner cast himself as the only one willing to go far enough to truly upend a system he said had “picked on Black and brown people.” He would do it all: dump slapdash prosecutions while still holding bad guys accountable, go after crooked cops and become a kind of activist DA seeking broader legislative reforms. On the campaign trail, he vowed to root out the prosecutors who had “a mad zeal for the highest charge, for the highest level of conviction, a culture that can find no flaw in police misconduct, that is drunk on the death penalty.”

His opponents said he was too radical. His words were anathema to the city’s Fraternal Order of Police as well as lifelong prosecutors — one of whom, Beth Grossman, unsuccessfully challenged Krasner in the general election after he beat a fractured field of Democrats.

Days after taking office in 2018, Krasner began his shakeup by firing dozens of prosecutors he said represented an old-school culture at an office that needed reform. Among them: Vega, a three-decade veteran in the DAO’s Homicide Unit, who is now the challenger in this year’s primary.

Krasner made good on promises: ending an information-sharing agreement with federal immigration authorities, curbing virtually all drug possession charges, and publicizing long-hidden data on prosecutions for the first time ever.

But with a murder rate ticking upward from a historic low in 2013, Krasner quickly came to face the exact type of criticisms he once dismissed as a “false narrative” about prosecutors.

Critics assailed his office for neglecting crime victims. Reports landed in the press about Krasner’s new fleet of prosecutors failing to inform families before offering plea deals to their assailants. High-profile crime played out like political football. When Corporal James O’Connor was shot and killed during warrant service last year, former federal prosecutor and rival William McSwain slammed Krasner for not more aggressively pursuing the gunman on an earlier drug charge. The Trump appointee used the U.S. Attorney’s office to charge other gun offenders whom he claimed got kid glove treatment from Krasner in city prosecutions.

Even as gun violence and homicides reach levels unseen since 1990, major crime overall in Philadelphia has ticked downard and remains 12% lower than this time last year. There are thousands of fewer burglaries, robberies, thefts and muggings, and fewer assaults with weapons other than a gun.

Still, the “soft on crime” narrative forced Krasner to change his tune. The DAO struggled with public messaging around prosecutions.

When the Krasner era began, the office mainly trumpeted reforms and focused on long-standing structural problems that drive violence. Under pressure, it started to talk about aggressively locking up violent criminals and standing up for crime victims — the way traditional prosecutors do.

“Again: If you are arrested by @PhillyPolice for a shooting or other violent crime, you are going to jail,” Krasner tweeted in April of last year. “It could well be a facility with numerous #COVID19 cases already. You will not be eligible for bail. PUT DOWN THE GUNS — now and always.”

The blame game for Philly’s gun violence

Philadelphia’s gun violence spike broadly reflects the pandemic-ravaged national landscape — one of 34 big cities where homicides rose 30% in 2020, according to the National Commission on COVOD-19 and Criminal Justice.

Gun sales exploded nationwide as the pandemic gutted economies in cities like Philadelphia.

“Even in communities that generally have weak institutional controls to begin with, it was just sort of like gasoline on a fire,” said Dr. Brianna Remster, an Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Villanova University.

Law enforcement and supporters of more traditional policing strategies blame the increase in violence on the failure of progressive policies like Krasner’s and on “depolicing” — cops being less proactive after sustained criticism over aggressive law enforcement or police killings. In this telling, Krasner emboldened criminals by halting prosecutions, lowering bail, and giving sweetheart plea deals. He also made cops fearful of being prosecuted themselves, the thinking goes.

To people like John Jay College criminologist and retired NYPD Sgt. Joseph Giacalone, the timing fits. Police stops declined by nearly 60% in Philadelphia compared to the year prior, according to city data. Even in jurisdictions without Krasner-esque prosecutors, he believes federal consent decrees and mounting pressures on law enforcement have slowly eroded public safety.

“The bad old days don’t come back overnight,” Giacalone said.

Krasner’s effectiveness at prosecuting gun crime has become a major source of scrutiny. Arrests and charges for illegal guns have skyrocketed over the last year — but a recent Inquirer report found the conviction rate has declined. Critics blamed the DA; the DA blamed thin police evidence and witnesses failing to appear in court.

But how much these factors alone embolden people to commit gun crimes remains a matter of debate.

Jorge Cintron, who is serving 30 years to life in prison after confessing to multiple murders in 1996, said that during the years he was on the street, during former DA Lynne Abraham’s tenure, he and other Kensington teens paid little attention to policy.

“I don’t think we paid much attention to how much our bail would be if we were arrested for a gun, or how much prison time it may carry. When I was 16 years old, I didn’t watch the news,” he wrote in a message from state prison. “I’d be careful, but it never deterred me from carrying.”

Progressives counter the pandemic shattered community pillars like schools or rec centers. Further, they say the DA’s office is saddled with a complex job that in many ways puts a bandaid on the extreme divestment and poverty across the city.

Rory Kramer, an associate professor of sociology at Villanova, says law-and-order policies are unsustainable. He also says police blame Krasner’s criminal justice policies to distract from their own shortcomings.

The PPD’s homicide clearance rate — the percent of cases solved — has hovered at or below 50% for several years, compared to a 61% national average. In a historic context, aggressive pedestrian stops and vehicle searches help police say they are getting guns off the streets, but rarely recover actual contraband or help solve homicides, Kramer says.

“Our clearance rates don’t go up,” Kramer said. “What the hell are the police doing?”

Krasner talks about the murder of trans woman Mia Green in October 2020 Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

Fractured support on the campaign trail

Krasner boasts a geographically wide range of supporters, from celebrities in Silicon Valley to everyday Philadelphians, and they’re opening their pockets once again to give him a second term. His campaign has raised more than $421,000 this year, compared to challenger Vega’s $335,000, according to financial disclosures.

Much of the progressive support that was key to Krasner’s 2017 victory has returned — but with significant more reservations based on his first term.

Leftist political group Reclaim Philadelphia feels the DA largely kept his promises on reforms, like reducing the jail population through more selective prosecution and charging police officers for misconduct. But co-founder Morgan said there remains deep concern over the persistent use of high cash bail, as well as an uptick in juvenile detention over the last year.

Of equal concern, she claimed Krasner has also shown an “an unwillingness” to hear criticisms from leftists who hoisted him into office.

“At this point, it’s ‘I’m better than my predecessors so I’m not open to any of your criticism.’” Morgan said. “The bar was so low. It’s not enough to refer to that.”

Krasner called cash bail one of the biggest “frustrations” facing his office, but said that his base of support remains strong despite his shortcomings: “We make mistakes every day, we’ve had some frustrations, but in general, we made promises, we kept those promises.”

Philly’s Democratic party, which usually backs incumbents, is not giving Krasner its support citywide this year, leaving the DA and Vega to fight for individual endorsements from political leaders.

Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner before a news conference in November 2019 Credit: Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Michelle Sley, a Democratic ward leader in Northwest Philadelphia, a politically influential area with Black residents that overwhelmingly backed Krasner before, said the DA’s aggressive pursuit to overturn wrongful convictions earned her support again this year.

“He operates with compassion and I trust his judgment,” Schley said. For that same reason, she was turned off by the police union’s backing of Vega. “For me, it sends the message of more convictions without fairness.”

Krasner said the matchup is a choice between progress and a return to the old days of unfettered mass incarceration.

While Vega has attracted the support of many of Krasner’s opponents like the FOP, his campaign has been pamphleting the city with flyers casting the 64-year-old prosecutor as a “sensible reformer.”

Vega has drawn heat for trying to distance himself from his attempt to keep exoneree Anthony Wright in prison and his continued support from a pro-cop PAC that blamed George Floyd for his own death. But, on paper, his policy pitches are sometimes indistinct from Krasner’s own in 2017: reducing use of cash bail, holding crooked cops accountable, breaking “the school-to-prison pipeline.”

He has also pledged to reduce crime and, of course, shootings — but through a plan that relies heavily on enforcing existing gun laws and pushing for tougher ones, much as Krasner says he sought to do.

For either candidate, there’s no easy blueprint to follow.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...