Such maneuvers were rebukes of the drug-war policing era, and were supposed to free up police and prosecutors to spend more time on more consequential crimes that posed a real threat to the public. The DA’s office needed to boost its felony conviction rates, which had been lagging for years. It seemed to work—between 2009 and 2014, attempted murder and aggravated assault crime convictions rose from 34 to 42 percent, and homicide conviction rates rose from 79 to 90 percent.
This was the criminal-justice-reform platform Williams ran on—and won with—before such reforms became popular. But he squandered that political capital, spectacularly, by spending campaign cash on deep-tissue massages and taking five-star vacation trips paid for by wealthy friends. He pleaded guilty on June 29 to nearly 30 corruption and fraud charges tied to those extravagances, and other charges connected to the misappropriation of campaign funds.
This could have been the end of criminal-justice reform in Philadelphia, had voters decided that such an agenda can’t be trusted given its chief messenger had proven himself untrustworthy. It doesn’t help that violent crime has been on a small uptick in the city. Not to mention, there’s a long and unfortunate history of political corruption tied to criminal-justice reform in Philadelphia. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Black Mafia, a notorious local organized crime outfit, used nonprofit fronts with names such as “Community Urban Development, Inc.” and “Black, Inc.” to obtain government grants meant for fighting crime and poverty to bankroll much of its own criminal activity.
But despite that history, the crime increase, and what looks like chaos in the district attorney’s office, Philadelphia voters in May’s Democratic primary decided that they were staying with the criminal-justice-reform ticket: They voted for civil-rights lawyer Larry Krasner—a candidate who doubled down on Williams’ criminal-justice-reform agenda, and then some.
Krasner was the Bernie Sanders of the race, staking his platform on what his Republican opponent called “far left” policies. He drew campaign support from progressives like George Soros and members of Black Lives Matter. “What was interesting in 2017 was this race was no longer about candidates competing on who’s going to lock the most people up,” says Joe Dinkin, spokesman for the Working Families Party, which helped organize and get the vote out for Krasner’s campaign. “They competed on grounds of broad agreement that the system of mass incarceration is broken, and overly punitive, and deeply damaging to families and communities. Larry was the clear leading candidate, as his entire record has been about keeping people out of prison.”
As a private attorney, Krasner has defended Black Lives Matter members and protesters in court and he has mounted legal battles against numerous police officers involved in violence against civilians, and African Americans in particular. It’s perhaps no surprise then that a group of ex-district attorneys and police union leaders strongly opposed his campaign. Because of this, Krasner understands that should he win the general election in November (which, given the Democratic dominance in city elections, is likely), his biggest lift will be “changing the culture of the district attorney’s office,” which he says has been moving in the wrong direction for too long.