At a packed forum hosted by a coalition of progressive organizations Tuesday night, candidates running to be Philadelphia’s next district attorney faced tough questions about how to fix a system that incarcerates more people than most other U.S. cities.
Six of the seven Democrats running showed up to the forum (Democrat Rich Negrin was ill and Republican Beth Grossman had a conflict) at Arch Street United Methodist Church. It was organized by the Philadelphia Coalition for a Just D.A., which includes more than a dozen progressive groups. Holly Otterbein, of Philadelphia Magazine, and Vincent Thompson, of WURD radio, moderated a spirited — and at times, heated — discussion with questions that came directly from the coalition and members of the audience.
The issue that made sparks fly early on in the two-hour event was how the candidates would address the many people sitting in Philadelphia’s jails because they cannot afford to pay bail.
Michael Untermeyer, Larry Krasner and John O’Neill all said they would end the cash bail system.
“Our bail system is the worst in the country,” Untermeyer said.
Krasner argued the system is intended to make sure defendants show up for court, but it amounts to a premature punishment.
“Every bit of statistic shows us if you’re too poor to pay the bail, what’s really going to happen to you is you’re going to serve the sentence from day one, you’re more likely to plead guilty, you can’t help your lawyer, you’re more likely to be convicted,” he said. “It’s totally unacceptable.”
Joe Khan, Teresa Carr Deni and Tariq El-Shabazz said they would stop the practice for low-level, nonviolent crimes. El-Shabazz, who stepped down as First Deputy District Attorney to run for the top job, argued there are cases where bail is necessary.
“If in fact, we’re talking about serious offenses there is going to be some bail, there’s no doubt about that,” said El-Shabazz, noting that even then, he would be open to revisiting a person’s ability to pay under certain circumstances.
Those in favor of scrapping money bail, including Untermeyer, referenced Washington, D.C., which has become a national model for that approach and sees about 90 percent of pretrial defendants released. New Jersey replaced a cash bail system in January and already some are pushing to modify it.
Khan used the forum as an opportunity to pan “Mr. Untermeyer’s proposal.”
“We need real reform, which means no one sits in jail because they’re poor,” he said. Khan has said previously he wants to end cash bail, but clarified via Twitter Tuesday night that he would not rule it out for wealthy, white-collar defendants.
El-Shabazz questioned Philadelphia’s ability to afford such a change.
“There are millions and millions of dollars that they pump into that D.C. program that is not existing in Philadelphia at all and I have to submit to you, with 45 in office, we’re going to see how long that lasts,” he said, referring to Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, who has proposed steep federal budget cuts.
During a lightening round of “yes,” “no” or “I don’t know” questions, the candidates did agree on ending civil forfeiture, a practice that allows law enforcement to seize property from someone accused of certain crimes and their families. They also found common ground on expanding opportunities for commutations for those serving life sentences and a need to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate police-involved shootings. Two of the six, Krasner and El-Shabazz, promised never to seek the death penalty if elected.
As the forum stretched into its second hour, some candidates increasingly went on the attack.
Responding to a question about ending the police practice of pedestrian “stop-and-frisks,” Krasner, a criminal defense attorney, blamed his fellow candidates who are former prosecutors for not fixing the problem by rejecting cases based on illegal stops.
El-Shabazz took umbrage at that accusation, claiming as recently as six months ago he personally tossed such cases.
“I didn’t protest — I did it,” he said.
Former Assistant District Attorney John O’Neill jumped to his and El-Shabazz’s defense.
“When we all were in the DA’s office doing reforms and doing the right thing, Mr. Krasner was making a lot of money as a criminal defense attorney, and sitting on the sideline and complaining,” he said. “That doesn’t make you a reformer, that makes you a criminal defense attorney with a lot of money.”
Toward the end of the forum, Krasner shot back by describing himself as a “career civil rights lawyer” who had defended pro-bono victims of “corrupt police” and protest groups including Occupy and Black Lives Matter.