In Philly, incumbent Krasner, challenger Vega go head-to-head in fiery DA race

By: - May 18, 2021 3:57 pm

By The Philadelphia Tribune

PHILADELPHIA — On Tuesday, District Attorney Larry Krasner faces Carlos Vega in the Democratic primary for district attorney.

Krasner, a former civil rights defense attorney, is seeking a second term in office. Krasner has put in place several criminal justice reforms since taking office in 2018, including nixing cash bail for some low-level offenses and bolstering the office’s Conviction Integrity Unit that has led to 20 exonerations.

Vega is a former prosecutor in the district attorney’s office whom Krasner fired along with dozens of other prosecutors shortly after he took office. Vega has pledged to make the district attorney’s office more inclusive, hire more people of color as prosecutors, and build upon some of Krasner’s policies, including diversionary programs and the Conviction Integrity Unit.

The Philadelphia Tribune asked Krasner and Vega to respond to a questionnaire about their candidacies. The following are their responses.

LARRY KRASNER

Why are you running for district attorney of Philadelphia?

Krasner: During my first term, we rolled back the terrible policies that led to mass incarceration but did not increase safety. We reduced the future years people spent under supervision by nearly 80,000, cut future years of incarceration by over 20,000, and helped to safely reduce the jail population to lows not seen since 1985. We exonerated 19 men. We held the police accountable. We focused on serious crimes, and convicted people in 85 percent of homicide and shooting cases.

I remember the days of Lynne Abraham, when prosecutors turned a blind eye to misconduct by the police and prosecutors. I’ve stood with men exonerated who lost decades of their lives because of this culture, and know we cannot go back to when the office stood for corruption not justice. I am running again to keep us moving forward. We have more to do, and can’t afford to go back.

If elected, what are the top three policies you would pursue?

Krasner: We have dramatically expanded diversion in my first term, opening it up to everyone charged with drug possession and eliminating fines and fees. I will further expand it to keep people free of criminal records and tailor our treatment solutions to things that people actually need.

Second, we need to push hard for public health solutions to gun violence. My office prosecutes serious cases, but no matter how many prosecutions we bring, they won’t prevent it. I will keep pushing for massive investments in public health solutions to violence like CURE violence and increased trauma centers, along with job and educational investments.

Finally, I will push for the end to cash bail. We have dramatically expanded the number of people who have been released pretrial without bail, leading to a massive decrease in the jail population. Next, we will push for the end to money bail at the legislature.

The city’s criminal justice system disproportionately affects Black and brown Philadelphians. If elected, what would your administration mean for Black and brown Philadelphians?

Krasner: My reelection means we will keep moving forward on our path to dramatically reduce the racial inequities baked into the criminal justice system. Our office has stopped prosecuting cases that do not increase public safety, and many of those charges are traditionally ones charged disproportionately against Black people, like drug possession. We are committed to dismissing cases where the police engage in unconstitutional stop-and-frisk practices that target people of color. We hold police accountable when they engage in racist and abusive behavior, and refuse to call police officers who have engaged in racist behavior. We also utilize our datalab to evaluate where we are seeing race-based differences in how people are charged and sentenced in our office, and implement robust policy reviews where we see disparities. In a second term, we will push for legislation to allow us to revisit long sentences that were disproportionately given to Black people.

Are you for or against maintaining the cash bail system in Philadelphia? Please explain.

Krasner: Cash bail has no place in our justice system — it keeps people in prison who cannot afford to buy their way out and lets those with means purchase their freedom, even those who have committed very serious offenses. We are limited, however, in our ability to eliminate cash bail because of Pennsylvania’s law on it, and need

the legislature to pass a new one. I will keep pushing for that change. In the meantime, we have mitigated the harshest effects of cash bail. We produced a list of charges on which we would ask for release on recognizance, meaning release without cash bail, and expanded that list in the last year. For cases where we believe the person poses a serious danger to the community, we request extremely high bail to make sure the person was not released.

If elected, how would policies and goals would you set for the office’s juvenile unit?

Krasner: Kids are dramatically different from adults in every way, and they should be treated as such.

We have dramatically decreased the number of juveniles whose cases are resolved in adult court. Currently, around 98 percent of all juvenile-involved cases are resolved in juvenile court. We have also dramatically reduced out-of-home placements so that kids are kept with their families. Still, there is more that we can do. We are also working to expand the available diversion and restorative justice programs offered to juveniles to keep kids away from any carceral punishment, making that a last resort. We have received outside funding to implement programs that allow both the victim and the child to heal, rather than be saddled with a punitive punishment. We are also expanding our diversion programs to target higher-risk higher-needs kids, while working to resentence those who unconscionably received juvenile life without parole sentences.

If elected, how would your administration respond to the spike in shootings and homicides?

Krasner: First, we must continue placing the bulk of our office’s resources into investigating these cases, which we do. That is how we achieved an 85 percent conviction rate in shooting and homicide cases. Second, we must continue pushing for prevention, because by the time a prosecutor is involved, the violent act has already occurred.

Our office’s top priority is to support and elevate what works to reduce homicides: public health solutions to the gun violence that is harming our most vulnerable communities. We will continue advocating for increased funding and use of evidence-based violence interruption programs that have proven overwhelmingly successful at reducing gun violence when capable people do them in the right way, while demanding more financial investment in our hardest hit communities. At the legislature, I will continue to fight for more gun control and funding for prevention efforts in this city.

Why do you deserve another four years in office?

Krasner: We made promises when we ran for office four years ago, and we kept them. We stopped prosecuting cases that don’t make us safer, expanded diversion, cut future years of incarceration by over 20,000 and years of supervision by over 80,000. We held police accountable and exonerated 19 men. We reviewed excessive sentences that harmed Black and brown youth, and we kept kids out of adult court at unprecedented rates. We increased transparency, putting out public data and placing DAs into the community. We shifted resources into serious cases and have achieved an 85 percent conviction rate in homicides and shootings. We increased support for victims, bringing in over a million dollars in outside funding.

We have more to do as we fight for prevention and push for a more just criminal justice system. Given what we’ve done so far, I know we can do so much in a second term.

How do you intend to bring more diversity to the office?

Krasner: We have worked hard to increase diversity, and we will keep doing more. I am the first District Attorney to actively go in person to recruit lawyers at every HBCU in the country. I have also traveled to other national law schools and prioritized hiring women and people of color to ensure that the office becomes more and more diverse every year. Since I took office, the proportion of new ADAs who are people of color increased by 67 percent from the preceding two years, with a 50 percent increase in Black ADAs. I have also hired people of color and women in many of my top posts. And I created a diversity, equity & inclusion director to help increase recruitment and outreach internally so that the office can keep getting better in hiring practices. The office has more to do, but has also come a long way.

CARLOS VEGA

Why are you running for district attorney of Philadelphia?

Vega: I’m running for District Attorney because Mr. Krasner has underdelivered on his promises to reform the criminal justice system and completely failed to keep our city safe. We shouldn’t have to choose between reform and safety. As DA, I’ll provide that responsible balance between rooting out injustice in our system and prosecuting violent crime to make our city fairer and safer.

As the first Latino Homicide prosecutor in Pennsylvania, I devoted my career to protecting Philadelphians; helping to overturn a wrongful conviction; and standing up for marginalized communities like the one I grew up in that are too often targeted by crime and an inequitable criminal justice system. As a prosecutor for 35 years, I worked hard to ensure that real justice was served by arguing for meaningful, yet fair consequences for criminal activity and making sure that innocent people were not punished for crimes they did not commit.

If elected, what are the top three policies you would pursue?

Vega: Philadelphia is facing serious challenges. Nearly 500 people were killed and over 2,240 people were shot last year, making it one of the most violent years in the city’s history. We are on track to have 600 homicides this year—the most in our history. This violence has disproportionately affected marginalized communities like the one I grew up in. We don’t have to choose between making our city safe and reforming our criminal justice system. We need to do both.

As DA, I’ll prioritize ending this epidemic of gun violence by instituting a Focused Deterrence program that offers access to opportunity as a way to lure people from violent crime; rooting out injustice in our system by ending cash bail for non-violent offenders and holding bad cops accountable; and ensuring that innocent people are not serving time for crimes they didn’t commit by improving and expanding the Conviction Integrity Unit.

The city’s criminal justice system disproportionately affects Black and brown Philadelphians. If elected, what would your administration mean for Black and brown Philadelphians?

I believe the District Attorney should be committed to rooting out these injustices in our system because doing so will make our system more just and safe. In particular, I think we need to root out racial and wealth-based inequities by prohibiting cash bail for people charged with misdemeanors and do not pose a risk to the community.

We must also break the school-to-prison pipeline by instituting and fully implementing early intervention programs and building new bridges between the residents and stakeholders from the legal, religious, education, and business communities. I would partner with the Mayor, City Council, and other government bodies to address root causes of crime like drug addiction, lack of housing, and mental health conditions.

Lastly, I would expand the Conviction Integrity Unit to ensure that no one is serving time for crimes that did not commit.

Are you for or against maintaining the cash bail system in Philadelphia? Please explain.

Vega: I believe the current cash bail system is an abject failure. Under the current District Attorney, too many people who pose no threat to the community are incarcerated simply because they cannot afford their bail, while at the same time it allows people intent on inflicting harm on marginalized communities to freely walk the streets. I would seek to ensure the opposite: that there is no cash bail for non-violent, low-level offenders, while utilizing it for violent offenders who pose a serious threat to society. It is important to treat each individual on a case-by-case basis as the circumstances and severity of the alleged crime(s) as well as the record of the alleged perpetrator(s) vary, making a one-size-fits-all policy ineffective and harmful.

If elected, how would policies and goals would you set for the office’s juvenile unit?

 Vega: As DA, I will help implement youth courts in schools interested in alternative methods of conflict and disciplinary resolution. Youth court is a program that provides an alternative to the common types of formal discipline found in schools. Students who face the possibility of disciplinary action are provided a hearing in front of a group of their peers rather than receiving formal disciplinary action. The offending student will be assigned a classmate to represent him or her, and the student will present his or her case before a jury of peers. The student receives a verdict from the jury, usually including an apology and a written essay. The District Attorney’s Office will provide attorneys to help train and teach students of the fundamental processes of form and fairness. The youth court program will keep students in school by avoiding formal disciplinary actions such as detention or suspension.

If elected, how would your administration respond to the spike in shootings and homicides?

Vega: The role of the DAO in conjunction with the mayor and city council is:

  • Prevention: through education, mental health treatment and employment opportunities.
  • Intervention: treat drug addiction and treatment as a health issue.
  • Enforcement: through law enforcement using community and religious leaders and private business as a partnership to address the issues of at-risk youth, specifically with a Focused Deterrence program.
  • Re-entry: having individuals on probation participate in my Learn and Earn program which will give participants a road map to success.
If elected, what policies from the former administration would you eliminate?

Vega: I believe Mr. Krasner’s entire approach to prosecution is misguided. He has simply chosen to stop prosecuting many offenses because he believes that the conditions that give rise to those offenses should not be addressed by the criminal justice system. But by refusing to prosecute these crimes — an abdication of the core function of the District Attorney’s office — Mr. Krasner has given up the ability to mandate treatment or rehabilitation that would address the root causes of crime.

How do you intend to bring more diversity to the office?

 Vega: Mr. Krasner has a history of hiring mostly white staff, especially in high-paying jobs. According to a report by the City Controller, seventy-one percent of non-civil service employees in Krasner’s office are white, making it one of the whitest offices in city government. Of those whom Krasner is paying over ninety thousand dollars, eighty-two percent are white.

As DA, I will prioritize hiring lawyers that reflect the richness and diversity of our city. That starts by paying Black lawyers what they are worth so we can retain them once they join the office. Second, I would work to recruit lawyers from Philadelphia who have grown up in our communities and understand our needs.

This story first appeared in the Philadelphia Tribune, a publishing partner of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. 

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