With Violence Rising, Can a Gentler Prosecutor Hold His Seat?

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PHILADELPHIA – When Larry Krasner was elected Philadelphia District Attorney in 2017, his story made him one of the most visible of a new wave of progressive prosecutors: a lawyer who sued police 75 times for civil rights violations had become a senior law enforcement officer in one of the largest cities America.

Mr. Krasner promised to stop the prosecution of drug possession and prostitution and to hold the police accountable for wrongdoing. But even as he wrote a victory book of his election and appeared on a PBS documentary series, the murders and gun violence in Philadelphia rose to levels not seen since the 1990s.

Now the 60-year-old Krasner is facing a major challenge from a veteran attorney who has been fired by him, who argues that Mr. Krasner has made the city less safe.

Public concern over racism and excessive incarceration in the criminal justice system over the past decade brought forward progressive prosecutors like Mr Krasner, who promote less punitive approaches, to office. But that was after a long period of declining crime. The Philadelphia Democratic primary on Tuesday is a test of whether such candidates can continue to win elections as gun violence increases in cities across the country.

The police used the statistics to promote Mr Krasner’s opponent, Carlos Vega, 64. Earlier this month, the police union parked a soft ice cream truck in front of the prosecutor’s office to emphasize that Mr. Krasner was a criminal. (In response, Mr Krasner’s campaign released a statement of support from Ben Cohen by Ben and Jerry.)

The union donated $ 25,200 to Mr Vega’s campaign and encouraged Republican voters to register as Democrats to vote out Mr Krasner. Minutes after the candidates ended their only televised debate in early May, a car was driving down Spruce Street with the rear window reading “All Real Cops agree. Fire Krasner. “

In his first election, Mr. Krasner drew a coalition of young progressives, trade unions and moderate black voters. His path to victory hasn’t changed. But the math could be: According to the state, more than 6,300 Republicans in Philadelphia County became Democrats after the presidential election, which could mean an influx of more conservative primary voters. (Even so, Mr Krasner won his first primary by nearly 28,000 votes when he faced six other Democrats.)

Opponents hope that the sharp increase in gun crime over the past two years has made Mr. Krasner vulnerable. Overall, violent crime in Philadelphia is declining. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of murders rose from 356 to 499, an increase of 40 percent.

Mr. Krasner blames the pandemic. Mr Vega accuses Mr Krasner.

“We arrest people with guns and there are no consequences,” Vega said. “There is a revolving door.”

He said he would act more aggressively against a small group of people who caused the violence and prosecute violent crimes harder than his opponent.

Criminologists said it was impossible to substantiate claims that Mr Krasner’s policies had resulted in more gun crimes. They point out that gun violence has risen sharply in many cities over the past year, regardless of whether their prosecutors are rated as advanced.

Theories about the rise in gun violence include pandemic-related factors such as cessation of social services and a slowdown in the judicial system. Another possible factor could be a police withdrawal amid increasing public scrutiny, said Richard Berk, professor of criminology and statistics at the University of Pennsylvania, who cautioned against reaching conclusions.

Mr Krasner said the pandemic had given a “relapse culture” the opportunity to “claw its way back into”. But he said the criminal attitude of previous prosecutors was “nonsense”.

“There is absolutely no scientific support for the idea that all the ranting and raving about the death penalty ever made anyone a little safer,” he said.

Mr Krasner announced his first run in 2017, weeks after Donald J. Trump’s inauguration. Amanda McIllmurray, a progressive organizer in Philadelphia, said Mr. Krasner, who had no experience as a prosecutor, was viewed as someone who could counter the president’s emphasis on law and order.

“He really gave hope to a lot of people at a time when we were very desperate,” she said.

After his tenure, Mr. Krasner fired more than two dozen veterans, including Mr. Vega, who had been a prosecutor for more than three decades.

Mr. Krasner also cut the number of people in the city’s prison by more than 30 percent, stopped prosecuting some low-level crimes, and asked judges for less stringent sentences.

But even some of his followers say he can be tactless and reluctant to accept criticism and that he has backed off promises to get bail off and no longer detain the youth in adult prisons.

“We’re now at the point where he’s not open to being challenged about how to do better with leftists,” said A’Brianna Morgan, a police and prison abolitionist.

Mr Krasner said he did a good job getting rid of “stupid, low bail money for broke people for non-serious crimes” but that he had been bailed out for more serious crimes and that he had solved a large majority of youth cases in juvenile court.

And he saw Mr. Vega as the embodiment of the establishment he wanted to turn upside down. He points to Mr. Vegas’ role in the retrial of Anthony Wright, a man wrongly convicted of rape and murder and who served 25 years in prison before his conviction was overturned.

The Philadelphia Attorney’s Office, then headed by Seth Williams, started a new trial against Mr. Wright. This made him the only Innocence Project client ever tried again after DNA evidence showed his innocence. Mr Vega was one of the prosecutors in the retrial.

Mr Vega said it was not his decision to try the case again, but that he believed the testimony was strong enough to do so. (Mr. Wright was found innocent.)

Peter Neufeld, founder of the Innocence Project, said Mr Vega’s actions during the retrial were unethical and that he misled the public as to the extent of his involvement.

Mr. Vega is assisted by more than a hundred of his former prosecutors, including Ed Rendell, a former Philadelphia district attorney who later became mayor of Philadelphia and governor of Pennsylvania.

He is also supported by a number of family members of the victims who believe that Mr. Krasner was too lenient. Among them is Aleida Garcia, whose son was murdered in 2015. Mr Vega handled the case until 2018, after which Mr Krasner released him without alerting the family. Although her son’s killer was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, Ms. Garcia was frustrated with the way Mr. Krasner’s office handled the case.

“The victims don’t have much to say,” she said.

Mr Krasner is relying on the coalition to back him four years ago, including more support from a George Soros-affiliated PAC that put $ 1.7 million into his first race. He’s raised $ 887,000 since Mr. Vega entered the race. Mr. Vega raised $ 734,000. The Democratic primary winner will be favored heavily in November’s general election against Republican candidate Charles Peruto Jr., a defense attorney who says public safety is more important than civil rights. Mr Peruto has said that if Mr Vega wins the primary, he will drop out of the race.

A test for Mr Vega will be whether he can cut back on Mr Krasner’s assistance in areas where gun violence occurs, including the northern and western parts of the city. Senator Vincent J. Hughes, whose district includes several violent neighborhoods, said he expected his constituents to continue to support Mr. Krasner and speak out against the police union, the fraternal police presence or the FOP

“You see in Larry Krasner no fear of the FOP and no fear of literally working towards justice,” he said.

Mr Krasner said he knew he could not claim a perfect record. Describing encounters on the sidewalk where voters labeled him “fair,” he said the phrase initially confused him.

“I couldn’t figure out why the hell they said ‘try’,” he said. “But hearing it over and over again, I finally came to the conclusion that the reason they say this is because they don’t expect you to be perfect. They know you will screw it up sometimes. They just can’t even believe you’re trying. “