The criminal justice pendulum has been swinging in a new direction for some time, away from "tough on crime" and zero tolerance policies that begat mandatory sentencing, high rates of incarceration, and civil rights abuses, and other ills.
Here in Philadelphia, on the way toward a more measured approach to crime, that pendulum hit District Attorney Seth Williams smack in the head. Williams is now facing a 23-count indictment for charges related to selling his office for ties, trips and other favors. He has lost his law license.
Despite a few early steps toward justice reform that has reduced the city's prison population, Williams fell short of his early promises of sweeping change. As his once promising career ends, there is a wide field of highly qualified candidates for one of the city's most important elected offices.
For us, one in particular stands out: RICH NEGRIN.
Negrin spent his early career in the DA's office as prosecutor. After a corporate law job, he spent a few thankless months overseeing the dissolution of the Board of Revision of Taxes, a post earned in part because of his reputation for independence and integrity. He also served on the Ethics Board and was Mayor Nutter's managing director.
This administrative experience should serve as a big plus for the $52 million, 594-employee DA's office. While administering the PhillyRising neighborhood improvement program, Negrin was known to show up in communities wielding a paint roller or helping to clean trash from vacant lots. This has given him a visceral understanding of neighborhoods - and how much people suffer in violent environments, adding a much needed dimension to the office.
The new district attorney will not only have to reestablish the credibility and authority of the office in light of the Williams scandal, but reaffirm the city's priorities for criminal justice: to be aware of how the pendulum is swinging and still address the real problems of too many guns, drugs, and opioids, and too many elected officials succumbing to corruption. Negrin's background as a board member of Ceasefire PA is encouraging on the gun front, especially his goal of going after gun shops that cater to straw buyers. His early experience in the DA's office gives him insight into a troubled juvenile justice system. Negrin has a compelling personal story, having sworn his life to justice after witnessing, at 13, the assassination of his father, a Cuban community activist.
Former prosecutor Beth Grossman is the only Republican running. The other Democrats are Joe Khan, who was in the DA's office before becoming an assistant U.S. attorney; Lawrence Krasner, a civil rights defense attorney who has the benefit of a just-announced George Soros-funded SuperPAC donation; Michael Untermeyer; who has been a city and state prosecutor; Jack O'Neill, an assistant DA under Lynne Abraham and Williams; Teresa Carr Deni, a municipal court judge; and defense lawyer Tariq El-Shabazz, formerly a top lieutenant of Williams.
El-Shabazz has a large and troubling tax lien that doesn't bode well for his ability to manage a budget, or to undo the damage Williams has brought to the office. Undoing that damage is of singular importance for this city. Among the Democrats, Rich Negrin is the best candidate to get us there.