Few people have seen the big picture of criminal justice in Philadelphia the way that Kevin Harden Jr. has seen it — selling drugs on the street corners of West Philly and even wounded in a gun fight as a youth, then turning it all around, getting his law degree and spending a half dozen years in the district attorney’s office under Seth Williams.
Now in private practice, the 31-year-old Harden spent his Election Day working for the man who promised to radically change that system, the veteran civil-rights attorney Lawrence Krasner.
“Larry understands that poor people get the short end of the stick,” Harden told me by phone early last night from Election Court, where he was challenging campaign irregularities on his candidate’s behalf. He cited Krasner’s promise to end cash bail and not lock up non-violent arrestees who pose no apparent threat to the community. “He’s going to be sensible — to make sure his policies don’t affect the poorest and most marginal communities.”
OK, it’s true that the vast majority of folks didn’t bother to even vote today, and it’s hard to compete with the must-see TV of the NBA draft lottery and the slow-motion implosion of Donald Trump’s presidency. So maybe you didn’t hear the big boom that went off around 9:45 p.m., the moment that Kranser was declared the winner in the seven-candidate Democratic primary to replace the scandal-scarred Williams as DA.
What was that sound? Nothing less than the stirrings of a whole different kind of revolution from the city that gave America the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights — a revolution aimed at finally undoing draconian justice regime that had turned the Cradle of Liberty into a death-penalty capital and the poster child for mass incarceration.
If elected in November — and he is the heavy favorite in this overwhelmingly Democratic town — Krasner has pledged to never seek capital punishment while working to end bail policies that lock up people for being poor, an asset-forfeiture program that has been a national disgrace, and stop-and-frisk searches that disproportionately target non-whites.
Krasner told his wildly enthusiastic supporters tonight that “[o]ur vision is of a criminal justice system that makes things better, that is just, that is based on preventing crime and is based on building up society rather than tearing it apart.”
His win also seems to prove the theory that history moves in 50 year cycles. It was the fall of 1967 — nearly five decades ago, when a promised “Summer of Love” devolved into the so-called “long hot summer” of urban riots — that Democrat James Tate won a hard-fought re-election (against Arlen Specter) by promising to make “law-and-order” cop Frank Rizzo his police commissioner.
For much of the half-century that followed, Philadelphia’s “tough on crime” approach ruled the day. Prison rates soared to a point where sociologists spoke of 36,000 “missing black men” from the city’s streets. The enduring images were Rizzo with that nightstick in his cummerbund, strip-searched Black Panthers on the front lawn, and the cover of a New York Times Magazine that called Rizzo acolyte Lynne Abraham — DA for most of the 1990s and 2000s — “the Deadliest DA.” Even as violent crime rates came down, the echoes of that era continue. Just ask Anthony Wright, who was imprisoned for 25 years for a 1991 murder that he didn’t commit and yet was re-tried by Williams last year even after the prosecutor’s case had clearly collapsed.
In pulling off what once would have been a shocking upset but seemed inevitable in the waning hours of the campaign, Krasner was surely helped by a huge infusion of outside cash — at least $1.45 million — from the liberal billionaire investor George Soros. But those Soros-backed ads carried a message that would have been unthinkable during Abraham’s reign — bragging of his work to free demonstrators from Occupy Philly and Black Lives Matter, and his civil lawsuits against the police.
Despite the radical message, Harden — the former ADA — said all he wants to see from Krasner is to continue the spirit of reform that had been promised when Williams replaced Abraham in 2010, only to collapse amid his personal ambitions and foibles. He said that most prosecutors want real change but that “a vocal minority” in the DA’s office can — and has — thwarted reform.
Harden questioned why the office continues to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defending death penalty verdicts. “It’s a waste of money,” he said. “It’s a waste of resources.”
But if Krasner’s win is indeed a revolution, tonight was only Lexington and Concord. Many more proverbial shots will be fired. The influential Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed third-place finisher Rich Negrin, is certain to be livid over Krasner’s primary win, and likely to throw everything it has behind the more traditional GOP candidate Beth Grossman — a former prosecutor — in the November election. But could a Republican ever win again in Philly? In the age of Trump? It sure seems like a tarnished brand, at least around these parts.
The real problem for Krasner — if he stays on track to win in the fall — will be institutional opposition from cops and at least some of the 300 career prosecutors in the DA’s office, a group that Philadelphia journalist Ryan Briggs dubbed “the deep state” of criminal justice in the city. Already, 12 former DA’s office employees have ripped Krasner in an open letter, calling his reform ideas “dangerous,” and adding, “imagine working for someone who has openly demonized what you do every day.” That kind of over-the-top rhetoric will only heat up in the months ahead.
But those concerns were shrugged off today by the thousands of Philadelphians who went to the polls with visions of a city that finds new ways to steer its young people away from crime and drugs without feeding the schools-to-prison pipeline.
“Prisons are more expensive to run than hospitals,” Harden told me. “The lights are on all the time.” The coming months will tell if tonight was the night that the lights — some of them, anyway — went out Philly. This much is clear: We live in revolutionary times.