Call it Seth Williams' legacy: a demoralized District Attorney’s Office on the verge of being taken over by a frequent courtroom antagonist who now promises to hire new lawyers from outside the city who would not work “in the culture that this DA’s office has represented for the last 30 years.”
Hear that? It’s the clank of mailboxes being closed by veteran Philadelphia prosecutors express-mailing their resumes to potential new employers.
It was bad enough to have their work tarnished by association with Williams, who awaits trial on corruption charges. To some, seeing Williams likely replaced by a criminal defense lawyer who for years has expressed contempt for their office is unbearable.
The lawyer is Larry Krasner, who easily led a seven-person field to replace Williams in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. He will face Beth Grossman, who was unopposed in the Republican primary. With Democrats holding a 7-1 voter registration edge, Krasner’s election appears inevitable.
That raises a question often asked after revolutions: Can a rebel swap hats and effectively govern? Can Krasner administer a city department with 300 attorneys and a $37 million budget? More importantly, can he restore the confidence of a staff that feels like it is on trial with Williams, who is accused of accepting gifts in return for favorable treatment.
Twelve former district attorneys wrote an open letter published by Philadelphia Citizen that called Krasner “dangerous,” and accused him of “spreading alternative facts.” They disputed Krasner’s characterization of the DA’s office as prioritizing “high conviction rates and harsh sentencing.”
The letter said the office has increased its diversionary programs from five to 23 since 2010, providing low-level offenders with opportunities for job training, expungements, drug treatment, and other assistance. More than 34 percent of misdemeanor cases are diverted into these programs, with charges filed in 25 percent fewer cases — and 80 percent fewer juvenile cases — than seven years ago.
That’s a record Williams might have run on had he not admitted to letting other people pay for trips and luxury items. But his alleged misdeeds should not taint the office he ran. Krasner must temper campaign rhetoric castigating the DA’s office if he is to win the support he needs from its staff to serve the city well.
Instead of talking about hiring lawyers from outside the city, Krasner should be assuring the public that he wants veteran prosecutors who are doing a good job to stay put. That doesn’t mean abandoning progressive goals, such as ending cash bail imprisonment and reviewing cases to free the wrongfully convicted. It does mean effectively leading a unit of law enforcement to ensure public safety.
Krasner was a very good civil rights attorney, representing clients like Occupy Philadelphia and Black Lives Matter. His reputation as a progressive lawyer gained him the financial backing of Democratic king maker, George Soros, whose $1.45 million donation helped buy TV time that boosted Krasner’s candidacy.
If it was hard for Krasner to abandon progressive orthodoxy that opposes big money in politics, he didn’t show it in accepting Soros’ cash. Krasner needs to show just as much flexibility if elected district attorney, and accept the fact that he will fail miserably in that job if he approaches it as he would as a defense lawyer.