With the rise in violence, can a nicer prosecutor keep their 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 in a new wave of progressive prosecutors: a lawyer who sued police for civil rights violations 75 once had become a senior law enforcement official. in one of the largest cities in America.

Mr. Krasner has vowed to stop prosecuting drug possession and prostitution charges and to hold the police accountable for his misconduct. But even as he wrote a triumphant book about his election and starred in a PBS documentary series, homicides and gun violence in Philadelphia were reaching levels not seen since the 1990s.

Today Mr Krasner, 60, faces a major challenge from a seasoned prosecutor he fired, who argues Mr Krasner has made the city less safe.

Public concerns about racism and over-incarceration in the criminal justice system over the past decade have pushed progressive prosecutors like Mr. Krasner, who advocates less punitive approaches, to power. But that was after a long period of declining crime. The Philadelphia Democratic primary on Tuesday poses a test of whether these candidates can continue to win elections when gun violence has increased in cities across the country.

Police seized the statistics to promote Mr Krasner’s opponent, Carlos Vega, 64. Earlier this month, the police union parked a truckload of non-alcoholic ice cream outside the district attorney’s office to point out that Mr. Krasner had been lenient on crime. . (In response, Mr. Krasner’s campaign released a statement of support from Ben Cohen, Ben and Jerry’s.)

The union donated $ 25,200 to Mr. Vega’s campaign and encouraged Republican voters to register as Democrats in order to eliminate Mr. Krasner. Minutes after the candidates concluded their only televised debate in early May, a car rolled down Spruce Street, its rear window embossed with the message “All Real The cops agree. Fire Krasner. “

In his first election, Mr. Krasner drew a coalition of young progressives, unions and moderate black voters. His path to victory has not changed. But the math may have: According to the state, more than 6,300 Philadelphia County Republicans became Democrats as a result of the presidential election, which could mean an influx of more conservative primary voters. (That said, Mr Krasner won his first primary by a margin of almost 28,000 votes as he ran against six other Democrats.)

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Opponents hope the sharp rise in gun crime over the past two years has left Mr. Krasner vulnerable. Overall, violent crime is on the decline in Philadelphia. But between 2019 and 2020, the number of homicides rose from 356 to 499, an increase of 40%.

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

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

He said he would take a more aggressive approach towards what he said was a small group of people who caused violence and that he would prosecute violent crimes harder than his opponent.

Criminologists said it would be impossible to substantiate the claim that Mr Krasner’s policies led to more gun crimes. They point out that gun violence has risen sharply in many cities over the past year, whether or not their prosecutors have been viewed as progressive.

Theories of increased gun violence include factors related to the pandemic such as the shutdown of social services and a slowdown in the justice system. Another possible factor could be a police withdrawal from increased public scrutiny, said Richard Berk, professor of criminology and statistics at the University of Pennsylvania, who cautioned against hasty conclusions.

Mr Krasner said the pandemic provided an opportunity for “a culture of looking back” to “get on its way”. But he said the harsh posture against crime of the former district attorneys had been “absurd.”

“There is absolutely no scientific backing that all of this ranting and delirium about the death penalty has ever made anyone any safer,” he said.

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

“He really gave a lot of people hope at a time when we were in a lot of despair,” she said.

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Once in office, Mr Krasner sacked more than two dozen veterans, including Mr Vega, who had been a prosecutor for more than three decades.

Mr Krasner also reduced the number of people incarcerated in the city jail by more than 30%, stopped prosecuting some low-level crimes and asked judges for less severe sentences.

But even some of his supporters say he may be reckless and reluctant to take criticism, and has reneged on his promises to eliminate cash bail and stop holding minors in adult prisons.

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

Mr Krasner said he had done a good job getting rid of “stupid, low bails for people broken for non-serious misdemeanors,” but was limited by bail laws for more serious crimes and that he had solved a large majority of minors. cases in juvenile courts.

And he presented Mr. Vega as an embodiment of the establishment he sought to overthrow. It highlights Mr Vega’s role in the retrial of Anthony Wright, a man who was wrongly convicted of rape and murder and who spent 25 years in prison before his conviction was overturned.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, then headed by Seth Williams, held a new trial against Mr. Wright, making him the only Project Innocence client to be retried after TBEN evidence indicated his innocence. Mr. Vega was one of the prosecutors at the retrial.

Mr Vega said it was not his decision to revive the case, but that he believed the testimony of the witnesses had been strong enough to do so. (Mr. Wright was declared innocent.)

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

Mr. Vega is supported by more than a hundred of his fellow 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 feel Mr. Krasner has been too lenient. Among them is Aleida Garcia, whose son was murdered in 2015. Mr. Vega handled the case until 2018, when Mr. Krasner fired him without alerting the family. Although her son’s killer was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, Ms Garcia was frustrated with the way Mr Krasner’s office handled the case.

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

Mr Krasner is counting on the coalition that backed him four years ago, including more support from a PAC associated with George Soros, who donated $ 1.7 million in his first run. He has raised $ 887,000 since Mr. Vega entered the race. Mr. Vega raised $ 734,000. The winner of the Democratic primary will be heavily favored in the November general election against Republican candidate Charles Peruto Jr., a defense attorney who says public safety is more important than civil rights. Mr Peruto said he would drop out of the race if Mr Vega won the primary.

A test for Mr Vega will be whether he can cut back on Mr Krasner’s support in neighborhoods where gun violence takes place, including the northern and western parts of the city. State Senator Vincent J. Hughes, whose district includes several neighborhoods plagued by violence, said he expected his constituents to continue to support Mr. Krasner and oppose the union in the police, the Fraternal Order of the Police, or FOP.

“They see Larry Krasner as unafraid of the FOP, unafraid to work for justice in the truest sense of the word,” he said.

Mr. Krasner said he knew he couldn’t claim a perfect case. He described sidewalk encounters in which voters called him “trying to be fair,” saying the wording initially intrigued him.

“I couldn’t understand why the hell they were saying ‘try’,” he said. “But when I heard 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’re going to mess it up every now and then. They can’t even believe you are trying.