Crowded District Attorney Field Debates Reform at Kline School of Law

Thomas R. Kline moderates a debate among the eight candidates to be Philadelphia's next district attorney.

Thomas R. Kline on Monday moderated a debate among the eight candidates seeking to be Philadelphia's next district attorney.

Amid a continued national dialogue on criminal justice reform, the eight candidates running to replace indicted Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams in this year’s election debated the path to progress Monday night at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law. In a forum moderated by Kline, a prominent trial attorney, the discussion ranged from the death penalty and the war on drugs to police use of “stop-and-frisk” tactics and civilian shootings, providing a broad view of the issues in play ahead of next month’s primary.

The debate, which is expected to air on PCN on Thursday at 7:30 p.m., was the idea of political science undergraduate student Shahmar Beasley, Kline said. Beasley urged the law school to host the event and give the community a chance to learn more about the candidates for one of the most important public offices in the city. Beasley opened the evening by asking the candidates to explain what distinguished them from one another.

Joe Khan, a former assistant U.S. attorney and assistant district attorney, said the city needs a progressive prosecutor with “a vision for justice for all.” He cited Williams’ “missed opportunities for criminal justice reform,” suggesting an end to the prosecution of low-level drug cases and the revision of a cash bail system that leaves poor defendants waiting in jail while those with money are able to leave.

Larry Krasner vehemently offered a progressive platform of his own. As the lone criminal defense attorney among the candidates, he said he’s “been fighting to change the criminal justice system for my entire career.” He promised never to seek the death penalty, which he said operates in name only and has cost the state nearly $1 billion in the past four decades. He also attacked the stop-and-frisk method of policing that he said rarely turns up criminal behavior but frequently alienates the predominantly black and brown young men on the receiving end. The results, he said, are severed lines of communication that create “a nightmare” for law enforcement trying to solve serious crimes with minimal witness cooperation.

The former first deputy district attorney in Williams’ office, Tariq El-Shabazz, said he has also opposed the death penalty for his entire career, and voiced a similar sentiment on stop-and-frisk.

“This is stop-and-fishing, not stop-and-frisking,” said El-Shabazz. “The policy has been applied racially, systemically, for a long time. It has to be abandoned, period.”

The responses from Krasner and El-Shabazz came after an answer from Richard Negrin, the city’s former deputy mayor and managing director, who had offered a softer approach indicating he would toss out cases in which there were constitutional violations. On the topic of police shootings of civilians, Negrin urged annual testing of police judgment and mandatory training for high-stress situations.

“We need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make sure our officers are making the right choices,” he said.

Jack O’Neill, a former assistant district attorney, carved out his case as a proponent of diversionary programs that he said have “worked to give treatment to people with mental health problems, rather than jail time.” There are 27 such programs in Philadelphia working to address the rapid rise in the prison population, he said, and they offer a clear path to progress.

Michael Untermeyer, a former district attorney, criticized a “dysfunctional” criminal justice system and a District Attorney’s Office that he said hasn’t been listening to the city’s residents for years. One solution, he suggested, would be a community-based office in which every assistant district attorney would be assigned a neighborhood and given the opportunity to develop relationships with its members. He also advocated a bail system that eliminates money from the equation, as well as a reform of the civil forfeiture system that has come under increased scrutiny in recent years.

Reminding the audience that each crime has a victim, Beth Grossman, the only Republican candidate in the crowded field, decried the “tsunami of Democratic public official corruption” in Philadelphia, including Williams’ charges. She offered herself — and a change in party leadership — as a solution.

“For a city that prides itself on being tough, on being scrappy, on being fighters, it amazes me how willing the city is to accept so little from its public servants,” said Grossman.

Retired Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni also presented her candidacy as an opportunity to bring “a new culture” into the District Attorney’s Office, noting that she was one of two candidates never to work as a prosecutor, along with Krasner.

The city can’t run from the injustices that occurred under Williams’ watch, El-Shabazz said. There are long-time members of the District Attorney’s Office who have “a warped, narrow, unjust view of how to prosecute,” and the office’s direction has been reflective of that.

Referring to a system that he said “criminalizes being poor and criminalizes mental illness and addiction,” Krasner advocated a complete overhaul of the way the District Attorney’s Office operates.

“We do not need minor changes in our criminal justice system,” said Krasner. “We need to revolutionize the way we do criminal justice. We need to stop treating symptoms and start treating causes.”