These are the elections that will determine the future of mass incarceration in America

An inmate at California's San Quentin State Prison
Source: Dabarti CGI/Shutterstock
An inmate at California's San Quentin State Prison
Source: Dabarti CGI/Shutterstock

As the resistance to Donald Trump’s presidency continues to grow, many Democrats and progressives are looking forward to the 2018 midterm elections, and even the 2020 presidential election to try and regain political power in Washington, D.C.

But for a dedicated group of organizers and reformers within the left, there are much more pressing elections happening all across the country — elections where thousands of people's lives and freedom hang in the balance.

One of those elections is Philadelphia's district attorney race — just months away — where Democratic candidate Larry Krasner is running to put an end to the city’s record-breaking propensity to put its citizens behind bars.

“I believe we will come to a tipping point very soon where we realize that mass incarceration has become destructive and we need to be constructive with what we do with criminal justice,” Krasner said in an interview during the 2017 People’s Summit, an annual gathering of progressive activists, organizers and celebrities.

For more than a decade, Philadelphia's prison system was at capacity, and two years ago more than 60% of inmates were still waiting for their day in court. Thanks in part to a MacArthur Foundation grant, the pretrial group has dropped to about 30% of the city's prison population. But Philadelphia still has the highest per capita incarceration rate of the 10 largest cities in the United States.

Krasner believes he can change all that, and he plans to do it by completely shifting the way Americans think about the role of a prosecutor. Historically, candidates running for district attorney positions in the U.S. tend to run on a platform of locking up more prisoners and taking a hard line on lawbreaking.

Larry Krasner, the Democratic nominee for Philadelphia district attorney
Source: Matt Rourke/AP

“The traditional path, which has failed us, has been to have career prosecutors, career government people, people who have never stood up for the rights of individuals either as civil rights attorneys or criminal defense attorneys move into these positions and the results are predictable,” Krasner said. “It’s just a generational, cyclical, intensifying drunken binge. And that binge is all about maximizing convictions and maximizing years in jail.”

Krasner, himself a former public defender and civil rights attorney, favors an approach that prioritizes reducing prison populations and ensuring fair and equal access to criminal defense for people of all races and income levels. And after winning a competitive Democratic primary in May, Philadelphia's heavily Democratic-leaning demographics suggest he’s likely to win the general election as well.

Though favored to win, Krasner is not taking anything for granted. But he’s also not compromising his progressive agenda by moving to the center. Krasner’s platform is aggressively pro-criminal justice reform and even includes outright refusing to prosecute some low-level offenses that have helped fuel mass incarceration.

“You can end mass incarceration by refusing to pursue the sentences that upstate [Pennsylvania] legislators want you to pursue so they can feed their economies by feeding their prisons with poor people from Philadelphia and people of color from Philadelphia.”

Krasner also wants to end cash bail in Philadelphia, a system that forces individuals awaiting trial to either pay hefty fees or stay in jail — a system Krasner says “preys on the poor” and keeps people in jail just because of their income.

He also wants to abolish civil asset forfeiture, in which police departments fund themselves with the money and assets they seize during arrests. And he says that if elected he will not pursue the death penalty during his tenure.

That’s a particularly notable departure from how past Philadelphia D.A.’s offices have operated. For nearly two decades, from 1991 to 2010, the position of Philadelphia D.A. was held by Democrat Lynne Abraham, who’s hardline “tough on crime” policies and aggressive pursuit of the death penalty earned her the nickname “the Queen of Death.” Abraham saw 108 death penalty cases returned by the courts, with two of them eventually resulting in exoneration. Yet, when asked if she regretted bringing any of those cases — even the two that were eventually exonerated — she said that she did not.

Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham
Source: Tom Mihalek/Getty Images

But Krasner’s primary victory is not just a sign of changing times in Philadelphia. Many progressive organizers at the People’s Summit are celebrating Krasner’s primary victory as one of many to come.

“All over America people were running for district attorney's offices trying to prove who is the toughest on crime, who is the meanest, who would lock people up for the longest,” said Joe Dinkin, national communications director for the Working Families Party. “And now in Larry Krasner’s [primary] race the consensus view was of a broken mass incarceration system that was overly punitive.” The Working Families Party were early supporters of Krasner’s candidacy and worked to help him win the Democratic primary.

Their efforts were part of a broader movement of progressive groups that have turned their attention to district attorney’s races.

“We’re at a tipping point when it comes to mass incarceration. We want to put power behind the campaigns of people running for prosecutor who are actually going to stand up and fight against mass incarceration, " said Becky Bond, coauthor of the organizing guide Rules for Revolutionaries.

Her organization Real Justice PAC is a political action committee formed by former members of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign with the intention of focusing further down the ballot on electing progressives to district attorney and county prosecutor seats all over the U.S.

Bond says her organization is working with a network of other groups led by Color of Change, a social justice organization who played an early and important role in identifying the importance of focusing on prosecutors and district attorneys.

"We organize mass participation through volunteering, door-knocking, calling voters and peer-to-peer texting in order to get the word out about a candidate and this platform." Bond said.

Bond hopes to replicate the success of the Krasner campaign everywhere in America and make the race for every municipality's top prosecutor one where progressive voters push for change.

Correction: June 12, 2017
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the pretrial prison population in Philadelphia. As of 2017, 30% of those incarcerated in Philadelphia have not yet gone to trial.

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Andrew Joyce

I cover politics and policy.

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