It is no stretch to say Philadelphia’s incumbent District Attorney Larry Krasner is one of the most important elected officials in southeastern Pennsylvania. His decisions have life-and-death consequences for some. For many thousands more, he can choose to pursue prosecutions that mean years behind bars or more time outside of a prison cell.
Since assuming his office in early 2018, Krasner has courted a high profile. Numerous media reports in his first term dubbed him the “most progressive” district attorney in the nation. That earned him a forthcoming PBS documentary that will focus on his “idealistic team attempting fundamental overhaul from within the system.” And Krasner’s memoir is also in the works.
Yet, facing a re-election challenge and with the primary just two months away, a host of state and local leaders would rather not talk about him.
Broad + Liberty reached out multiple times to more than a dozen officials in the Philadelphia area, asking them to provide their thoughts on Krasner’s first term in office. None replied.
Among the Philadelphia City Council members who did not respond to a request for comment were Darrell L. Clark, Cherelle Parker, Maria Quiñones-Sanchez, Derek Green, Allan Domb, Brian O’Neill, and David Oh.
Local lawmakers who declined to comment included State Reps. Joanna McClinton, Amen Brown, Jared Solomon, Joe Hohenstein. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Gov. Wolf also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Why the silence?
The silence on Krasner comes as his policies continue to attract controversy. Philadelphia’s homicide rate is up 29 percent in 2021, a figure that stands out because the increase is measured against 2020, in which the city nearly eclipsed 500 homicides for the entire year—the highest number in three decades.
With updated statistics released on Tuesday, the city reached 102 homicides in the first 74 days of 2021.
A local TV anchor tweeted Tuesday that the number makes Philadelphia the worst in the country. But statistics from Chicago police show the city has 106 murders citywide, putting Philadelphia in a close second for the title of murder capital of America.
Krasner’s critics argue the homicide spike is due in large part to his decarceration policies—the policies which initially earned him the PBS documentary. Krasner has deflected blame, saying the city needs to do more to address root causes of gun violence, like poverty. Also, homicides are up across the country, with large metro areas seeing a spike that coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Philadelphia’s homicide rate is up 29 percent in 2021, a figure that stands out because the increase is measured against 2020, in which the city nearly eclipsed 500 homicides for the entire year—the highest number in three decades.
“What you are seeing with this spike in gun violence is exactly what happens when a pandemic strips away all of these important protective programs … that have been reducing violence in their own way for years,” Krasner said last month.
When asked about local politicians shying away from comment, Krasner’s main opponent in the May 18 primary, Carlos Vega, was deferential.
“Well, the state representatives and other politicians represent their constituents. So, they have to be the voice of the people they represent,” Vega told Broad + Liberty. “I think they would have to listen to their constituents and decide how to act based on their voters, what they would want them to do.”
Last weekend was another extremely violent span, as a rash of shootings claimed several lives, including a 16-year-old boy.
“The number of shooting victims under the age of 18 reached 33 this week — 65 percent higher than last year,” Council President Darrell Clark said in a prepared statement. “We’re losing an entire generation of young people. This rising tide of gun violence must recede, and that can only happen if every stakeholder in our city works together on constructive solutions.”
The statement made no mention of Krasner or his policies. But Clark added that “every elected official—local, state and federal—[must work] together with law enforcement, reexamining every tactic and strategy we’re employing, because clearly they’re not working.”
With the primary just two months away, Vega declined to divulge any new fundraising totals but went on to add he feels as though he is seeing momentum.
“What I see every day is more and more people are volunteering, saying they want to knock on doors, they want to talk to their neighbors. They want me to come and speak to their community because what I’m saying resonates with them and they really want to share it. So, it’s a grassroots movement, little groups of 10, 20 people, coming out and saying they want to help me.”
Krasner may have his own grassroots, but he undoubtedly has the backing of some of the most influential power brokers and influence makers in the country. His 2017 campaign was boosted by George Soros, the billionaire political activist who has supported far-left candidates for district attorney positions across the country. And Krasner has also won backing of pop-culture leaders like recording artist John Legend.
Krasner’s campaign website boasts that the county jail population is down 40 percent, and that “[t]he amount of time people will spend in prison has dropped by over 18,000 years.”
A case for gradual, measured reform
Occasionally, the desire for criminal justice reform meets head-on with the implementation of that policy.
Jennifer Lee is the mother of Zamar Jones, a 7-year-old boy murdered last August on his porch in a crossfire of bullets between two rivals. One of the men accused of being one of the shooters, Michael Banks, had been given a lenient plea deal on a gun charge the year before from the district attorney’s office that kept him on the streets. Banks had a lengthy criminal history.
“I mean, it’s okay to help the community of color [through criminal justice reform], but you also have to look at their backgrounds,” Lee told Delaware Valley Journal on January 6. “I feel as though it should have been more—he should have looked into the background more, then to just release him like that.”
Zamar’s father, Rasheen McDonald, echoed those ideas.
“I don’t wish bad on anyone, but right is right and wrong is wrong,” McDonald said. “I have done things in my past. I have done time for the things that I have done. And it had made me a better man, though,” he continued.
McDonald made clear, however, that he thought reform should be gradual and measured.
“Someone can have a petty crime—I don’t [think] that because they have a drug case they need to get 20 years. But when someone’s out killing people and doing things like this, I’m like, ‘They didn’t care about no one else’.”
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter.Photo courtesy of Jared Piper for Philadelphia City Council