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If you care about ending mass incarceration, look at what Philadelphia just did


A local prosecutor’s race just set the national standard in the fight against mass incarceration.

Civil rights attorney Larry Krasner once joked that he was “completely unelectable.” But on Tuesday, he blew those expectations away: Despite opposition from much of the local criminal justice establishment, he won the race for Philadelphia’s district attorney.

The victory is a big deal not just because Krasner is a very progressive attorney that will shape local policy. It also signifies the exact kind of action that voters will have to take in the next few years and decades if they want to unravel mass incarceration.

Krasner’s victory had mostly been assured in a Democratic stronghold like Philadelphia once he won the party’s primary back in May. But even back then, he stood out.

The other candidates in the primary race ran on relatively progressive platforms, but Krasner had the strongest progressive record on criminal justice issues. He has sued law enforcement and government agencies more than 75 times, and he had worked for Black Lives Matter, Occupy Philly, and protesters at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

As Holly Otterbein wrote in Philadelphia magazine at the time, the primary was a surprising turn of events for a city that’s known for some of the toughest criminal justice policies in the nation, and whose district attorney’s office has been mired by scandal — District Attorney Seth Williams left office and pleaded guilty to bribery charges earlier this year. After the primary, Otterbein wrote:

It is a stunning victory in a city that elected Lynne Abraham — once dubbed the “deadliest DA” in America by the New York Times — four times in a row. Krasner campaigned on the most progressive agenda of all the candidates, promising to end “mass incarceration” by effectively starving the criminal justice system. He vowed never to ask for cash bail for nonviolent offenders, pursue the death penalty, or bring cases based on illegal searches. He also said he would expand the city’s drug courts and diversion programs for low-level offenders.

Krasner’s support for reform led to big-time opposition from the criminal justice establishment — including the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police — during the primary and general election.

Yet in a city that is heavily Democratic, Krasner soared to victory pretty easily after the primary. By the latest count, he got 75 percent of the vote on Tuesday, while Republican opponent Beth Grossman got only 25 percent.

It’s exactly these types of elections that will decide the future of incarceration. While much media attention has gone to reforming the federal system, the great majority of incarceration occurs at the local and state level: The latest data by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that about 87 percent of US inmates are held in state prisons.

Local prosecutors are very powerful in these systems. They effectively decide who goes to prison and who doesn’t, and how long someone will go to prison for — by unilaterally choosing what charges to bring against anyone.

Yet even as the movement for criminal justice reform has built up around the nation, prosecutors have largely avoided the spotlight as some of the main drivers of mass incarceration. Krasner’s election, along with some other elections we’ve seen in the past couple years, show that may be changing.

Prosecutors are key drivers of mass incarceration

Typically, discussions of the criminal justice system focus on lawmakers, prisons, the police, and maybe judges. Rarely, however, is the most powerful actor in this system mentioned: the prosecutor.

Prosecutors are enormously powerful in the US criminal justice system, in large part because they are given so much discretion to prosecute however they see fit. For example, former Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson in 2014 announced that he would no longer enforce low-level marijuana arrests. Think about how this works: Pot is still illegal in New York state, but Brooklyn’s district attorney flat-out said that he would ignore an aspect of the law — and it’s completely within his discretion to do so.

Prosecutors make these types of decisions all the time: Should they bring the type of charge that will trigger a lengthy mandatory minimum sentence? Should they bring a charge that’s only a misdemeanor? Should they strike a deal for a lower sentence, but one that can be imposed without a costly trial?

Courts and juries do, in theory, act as checks on prosecutors. But in practice, they don’t: More than 90 percent of criminal convictions are resolved through a plea agreement, so by and large prosecutors and defendants — not judges and juries — have almost all the say in the great majority of cases that result in incarceration or some other punishment.

John Pfaff, a criminal justice expert at Fordham University, has found evidence that prosecutors have been the key drivers of mass incarceration in the past couple of decades. Analyzing data from state judiciaries, he compared the number of crimes, arrests, and prosecutions from 1994 to 2008. He found that reported violent and property crime fell, and arrests for almost all crimes also fell. But one thing went up: the number of felony cases filed in court.

Prosecutors were filing more charges even as crime and arrests dropped, throwing more people into the prison system. Prosecutors were driving mass incarceration.

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Pfaff provided a real-world example of this kind of dynamic in his book, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform: “Take South Dakota, which in 2013 passed a reform bill that aimed to reduce prison populations. The law did lead to prison declines in 2014 and 2015, yet at the same time prosecutors responded by charging more people with generally low-level felonies, and over these two years total felony convictions rose by 25 percent.” In the long term, this could lead to even larger prison populations.

Now apply this story on a national scale. There is less crime compared to the 1990s. Police are making fewer arrests. Lawmakers are slowly reducing the length of prison sentences. Yet until 2010, incarceration rates had continued climbing nationwide — and, as Pfaff pointed out, the recent drop in incarceration would be much less pronounced if it wasn’t for court-ordered drops in California’s prison population. Prosecutors have been abetting more and more incarceration while other actors in the system have been pulling back.

Reformers are now grappling with the role of prosecutors

Despite the role of prosecutors in driving up mass incarceration, reformers have for the most part ignored these actors over the past few years. Pfaff noted: “No major piece of state-level reform legislation has directly challenged prosecutorial power (although some reforms do in fact impede it), and other than a few, generally local exceptions, their power is rarely a topic in the national debate over criminal justice reform.”

The Krasner election shows this may be finally turning around. Philadelphia Justice and Public Safety, financed by billionaire donor and criminal justice reformer George Soros, put more than $1 million into the race. Soros has also put money in other races, previously helping defeat a “tough on crime” prosecutor in the Chicago area and pouring money into races ranging from Mississippi to New Mexico.

The American Civil Liberties Union, with support by Soros, also played a big role in the Philadelphia campaign. As Ben Wofford reported for Politico in May, the national civil rights organization canvassed for people to get out to vote for the district attorney. While the ACLU never formally endorsed a candidate (due to its tax status), it was widely believed that Krasner was the group’s favorite in the race.

“If we’re ever going to genuinely transform our nation’s criminal justice system, then we have to overhaul prosecutorial practices,” Udi Ofer of the ACLU told Politico. “If there’s one person in the system that can end mass incarceration tomorrow if they wanted to, it’s prosecutors.”

This won’t lead to reform overnight. Krasner himself said, “Not everything you try to do is easily within reach.” And as Maura Ewing reported for the Atlantic, the attorneys working under Krasner still have a lot of discretion in the courtroom, and those who oppose Krasner’s policy ideas may try to stifle their implementation in the real world. It will likely take time for Krasner to weed out these internal opponents to his agenda and get true reform moving.

But it’s a start — not just because prosecutors are so powerful, but also because it’s at the local and state level where the real action in criminal justice happens.

In criminal justice, it’s local and state systems that matter

The Philadelphia election illuminates one potential bright spot as President Donald Trump resides in the White House: Although Trump ran on “tough on crime,” pro–mass incarceration policies, the reality is most incarceration is done at the local and state level — giving reformers an avenue to pursue reform even as Trump remains in office.

Consider the statistics: In the US, federal prisons house about 13 percent of the overall prison population. That is, to be sure, a significant number in such a big system. But it’s relatively small in the grand scheme of things, as this chart from the Prison Policy Initiative shows:

Most incarceration happens at the state and local level.
Prison Policy Initiative

One way to think about this is what would happen if Trump used his pardon powers to their maximum potential — meaning he pardoned every single person in federal prison right now. That would push down America’s overall incarcerated population from about 2.1 million to about 1.9 million.

That would be a hefty reduction. But it also wouldn’t undo mass incarceration, as the US would still lead all but one country in incarceration: With an incarceration rate of about 603 per 100,000 people, only the tiny island country of Seychelles would come ahead.

Similarly, almost all police work is done at the local and state level. There are about 18,000 law enforcement agencies in America — only a dozen or so of which are federal agencies.

While the federal government can incentivize states to adopt specific criminal justice policies, studies show that previous efforts — such as the 1994 federal crime law — had little to no impact. By and large, it seems cities and states will only embrace federal incentives on criminal justice issues if they actually want to adopt the policies being encouraged.

Criminal justice reform, then, is going to fall almost wholly to cities and states. That’s why Krasner’s victory is such a big deal: In the age of Trump, it shows criminal justice reform still has a lot of room for victory where these kinds of wins can matter most.


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Jack Handy

Jack Handy

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