Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice Reform and Public Safety Rhetoric in the Philly DA Race

Most candidates know how to say the right words, but playing up to fears is still popular.


The policy similarities and differences of the seven Democratic district attorney candidates running to replace Seth Williams, who is facing federal corruption charges, reveal the dissonance between some of Democrats' self-professed commitments to issues like civil rights or poverty and the way they campaign and govern at the local level, where government is often at its most powerful vis a vis the individual.

Last night, I attended a DA candidate forum in my neighborhood in Philadelphia last night. The meeting began with a local police officer community liaison talking about crime rates going down in the neighborhood (and warning residents not to leave car doors unlocked, particularly when also leaving valuables in view) and ended with questions from residents about what the district attorney candidates could do about "drug houses" in the neighborhood.

"Criminal justice reform" came up repeatedly, a number of times without any kind of detail as to what it meant, so did the kind of appeals to "more safety" that produce the kinds of policies and priorities that have made criminal justice reform necessary.

"We here have found a way to keep ourselves as safe as we can," candidate Jack O'Neill, referring to the general safety of the Roxborough neighborhood where the forum was held, despite the later questions about alleged drug houses and concern about alleged drug addicts slowly ruining the neighborhood's main throughway, "but I also know that we can keep ourselves a lot safer."

It was from that promise that O'Neill segued to criminal justice reform. "The criminal justice system needs to be fair for all those people who don't need to be in jail," the former prosecutor continued, pointing to drug diversions and mental health treatments as alternatives.

Rich Negrin, the city's former managing director, who received the endorsement of the local Fraternal Order of Police, insisted that the Democratic candidate sagreed on most things.

"We all agree on going after corrupt politicians, mass incarceration, cash bail, being smarter on non-violent offenders, not criminalizing poverty, not criminalizing addiction," Negrin said. "We're all there, we're all there by and large, much agreement."

A little later, Negrin did his version of the "more safety" pitch: "I know this neighborhood. I know you have a crack house over there on Fountain Street… you guys have crime right here, no one talks about it, you know how many armed robberies there have been over at the 7-11? Right?"

"It's going on right here in your community," Negrin told the group of about 100 voters who showed up. "Here, wreaking havoc in Roxborough, and we're not talking about that." Several of the residents had asked questions about crime before and after Negrin's introduction.

"Our young people are facing significant challenges," Negrin went on. "I want to be the DA… who can look at our kids in the face and say you can live past 25, that it doesn't matter where you come from or what you see, that you can be the first from your family to go to college, to go to law school, to help run the fifth largest city in the country, one of the greatest cities in the world, and maybe even play in the NFL for a very brief period of time before they cut me."

"But our kids need to hear that message," Negrin continued, referring to his life story. "That's incredibly important, and they need a DA that the first time they meet him he's not just trying to lock them up, he's in the neighborhoods making the community-based model."

Joe Khan, too, appealed to safety. "I want the city to be safe for your children, for my children," he told the audience.

"A good, dynamic, progressive DA can use the incredible power of the office and the talent and incredible people who work there to address these major problems in the city," Khan said, referring to issues like the need to criminal justice reform, political corruption, and gun violence.

Teresa Carr Deni, a former municipal court judge and defense attorney, was the only who showed up who had any critical words for local police (at least two police officers stood in attendance in the back.)

"I have over the course of the last 31 years got to know all the new public defenders, all the new district attorneys, all the new private counsel, I've got a birds eye view of the criminal justice community," she said in her introduction.

"I've also encountered and interacted with many many police officers; they know me and I know them, up to a point of course," she continued. "Some people have a passion for the job, and some people shouldn't be doing the job."

Deni spoke in depth about her opposition to stop and frisk.

"Every neighborhood is different, but in our city the hoods in certain minority communities are being harassed by the stop and frisk policies," she said, "and it has created a problem in communication among the communities of the police and the people who are committing these crimes and people who are being victimized by these violent crimes."

"Stopping people without reasonable suspicion makes people very angry, and they don't want to cooperate with the police and then when there's a crime you cannot get their help," she continued. "There are at least 50 unsolved homicides over the past year because of this breakdown in communication… that's something that's got to be dealt with and be dealt with immediately."

She credited the DA's office with sending representatives to community meetings, saying that was "the kind of interaction we need."

"People get very angry when they're stopped for no reason and you can't blame them, you can't blame them," she went on. "To have somebody put their hands on you, stick their fingers in your pockets and things like that, it's very intrusive."

Deni acknowledged the cops in attendance. "That being said, I see some police officers in the room, and I definitely want to acknowledge that there are a lot of good police officers who are doing their jobs and trying to protect us," she said, "and we have no problem there.

She continued: "There are a few who should not be on the force."

"Anybody who's shooting 14 bullets into a moving car for no reason, and somebody gets killed and they get a 25 day suspension, I say that's not fair," Deni said, referring to the light discipline many Philly cops get for incidents of police brutality and even homicides. "I mean, even if it was a mistake, you at least should be fired, if you're not going to prosecute them. They're not up to the job."

"Accidental deaths are not acceptable as far as I'm concerned," Deni stressed to the audience. "But I think that's a problem of negotiation of the labor contracts that have to be looked at more closely so that we can be able to disperse with officers who are unable to do their job competently."

Deni was the only candidate in attendance to talk so directly about police brutality, and the only in the race who I've seen specifically address how police contracts thwart accountability.

Deni also went in depth about civil asset forfeiture, criticizing the practice of seizing property from criminal suspects before securing convictions and saying it deprived residents of due process. She sai she was cautiously optimistic about asset forfeiture reform at the state level.

"The district attorney's office should not be relying on civil forfeiture for 20 percent of its budget," Deni said. "That incentivizes the taking of homes and we actually need to pay more attention to that."

Beth Grossman, a former Democrat running as the sole Republican, who was also in charge of the asset forfeiture unit in the DA's office, defended asset forfeiture as a practice that served as a "deterrent" to drug dealers—side stepping the fact that property is taken from people the district attorney has not convicted of a crime, and in many cases, knows it is unable to do so.

A number of the candidates promised to reform cash bail. Larry Krasner, a civil rights and criminal defense attorney running for DA, who did not attend the forum despite, according to organizers, committing to it, pointed out to Reason last month that while 80 percent of registered voters in Philadelphia are Democrats, and it has the highest level of poverty of the 10 largest cities in the U.S., "we have people remaining in county jail four times as long as other cities," largely because of high cash bail."

Krasner has been critical of other candidates paying lip service to criminal justice reform. "All these other candidates have been a part of the problem," he said at a recent church meeting, the Philadelphia Daily News reported. "They have done nothing to change the problem, but now all of a sudden in this race, when the popular view on criminal justice has shifted … they're the biggest reformers you've ever seen."

It's a conclusion that's not hard to draw after listening to the other candidates who showed up.

The forum was attended by, in the order they arrived (only Grossman was on time), Grossman and Democrats Deni, the former municipal court judge and criminal defense attorney, Khan, the former local and federal prosecutor, O'Neill, the former local prosecutor, and Negrin, the city's former managing director.

Krasner, Tariq Shabbaz, a former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney who has called critical coverage of him "fake news" motivated by racism, and Michael Untermeyer, a former state and local prosecutor who ran for DA as a Republican in 2009, did not appear. Organizers said all the candidates had committed to attending.

Spending most of the first 27 years of my life in Newark, N.J., I attended a lot of community meetings. This was my first one in Philadelphia. While the neighborhood I live in now has far less crime than where I lived in Newark, it would be hard to tell that based on the level of fear still expressed by some of the residents. It illustrates why criminal justice reform is so difficult to advance—playing to people's fears by privileging public safety over all else seems like the easier electoral path, especially given the low voter-turnout in elections like these. That's unfortunate because such local elections have far more impact on people's every day lives than the federal elections we all obssess over. And residents worried about public safety are far more likely to come out to vote than those who say criminal justice reform matters to them.

The primaries are on Tuesday, May 16.