Though Williams was ultimately undone by a still-ongoing corruption scandal—he is currently under federal indictment for bribery, extortion, and fraud—he also wasn’t able to fulfill most of his campaign promises. Between the systemic and cultural obstacles to change in the criminal-justice system, even reformist DAs who are assumed to be operating in good faith have difficulty executing their plans. Should voters expect Krasner to be any different?
He would undoubtedly say “yes.” Krasner has defended Occupy and Black Lives Matter protesters in court, and he received endorsements from the city’s most prominent BLM organizer, Asa Khalif. He had the highest national profile as well, attracting support from billionaire donor George Soros, New York Daily News writer and activist Shaun King, and Grammy-winning musician John Legend.
Krasner’s opponents were perhaps more traditional: five candidates who’ve worked as assistant DAs and a Philadelphia Municipal Court judge. Reflecting on a recent Democratic debate he moderated, civil-rights attorney David Rudovsky gave me his impression: “At the end of it, I said to myself, ‘It sounds like they’re all running for public defender.’”
Rudovsky saw the Democrats’ similarities as indicative of the community’s changing opinion of what an effective criminal-justice system looks like. “A lot of people, regardless of their political views, now think that mass incarceration is a total failure, as is the War on Drugs and so on. Which has led to this kind of discussion,” he said. “It’s more than just locking up as many people as you can and winning as many cases as you can.”
Krasner has never been a prosecutor, often described as the most powerful actor in a criminal-justice system. As the DA, or lead prosecutor, in this large city, he’d also play an additional role as the public face of criminal justice. Philadelphia’s law-enforcement legacy is a controversial one, especially with regard to the tenure of former mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo, who served in the 1960s and 1970s and whose figure still looms large in debates about policing (sometimes literally so). These days, crime has fallen in Philadelphia, but it has the highest rate of incarceration among the 10 largest U.S. cities. Roughly 30 percent of its roughly 6,000 jail detainees are awaiting trial, unable to afford bail, and five class-action lawsuits have been brought against it in the past five decades for allegedly overbooking its jail.*
DAs have a tremendous amount of discretion in shaping what law enforcement looks like in a city: deciding who is put on trial; making plea deals; and suggesting bail amounts, punishment, and length of sentencing, where applicable. They can have influence beyond their jurisdictions as well. “I don’t think one should underestimate the bully-pulpit role of being the DA in Philadelphia, or Chicago or Los Angeles. These are huge leadership roles. It’s not just about the local community—it’s about how they’re moving the justice system in their state and in the nation,” said Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor and current executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a new national network designed to share best practices and other resources for reformist prosecutors.