The candidates running for Philadelphia district attorney clashed Thursday over sanctuary cities, over how best to improve quality of life, and over a controversial policy that allows law enforcement to seize property without charging a crime.
Appearing at La Salle University for an hour-long debate, Democrat Larry Krasner, a longtime civil rights lawyer, cast himself as a "change agent" who would reform "a criminal justice system that is off the rails."
Republican Beth Grossman, a former assistant district attorney, positioned herself as the champion of crime victims and said the Nov. 7 election was about "experience and qualifications."
Krasner has not worked as a prosecutor, but he suggested only an outsider like himself could shake up an office that he argued had locked up too many people and repeatedly violated the rights of innocent people.
The city's last elected DA, Democrat Seth Williams, pleaded guilty in June in his bribery case. He was disbarred Thursday and awaits sentencing.
Krasner blasted the city's civil-asset forfeiture policy, which allows the authorities to permanently take property linked to criminal acts even if its owners are never charged. Police may, for example, seize someone's house if they suspect it's a drug hub.
Krasner said the District Attorney's Office had seized tens of millions of dollars over an 11-year period, taking property even from "perfectly innocent" people. "That is corruption," he said. He said assets such as cars and houses should only be seized from those who have been convicted of crimes.
Grossman used the forfeiture policy as chief of the Public Nuisance Task Force. "The story that gets lost," she said, is "neighbors who suffer" living next to drug dens. Such nuisances decrease property values and make neighborhoods less safe, Grossman said.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in May ruled that authorities may only seize assets if they prove the owner was not only aware of illegal activity but also complicit in it.
In perhaps the sharpest exchange of the night, Grossman accused her opponent of spending his "entire career" defending "those who have taken people's lives through gun violence."
Krasner responded that the Constitution guarantees the right to an attorney, and "the people who don't respect both sides of that system don't respect America."
"Donald Trump doesn't respect America," he said, adding that Grossman had been endorsed by groups that supported the president.
"I respect our system," Grossman said, and emphasized she had spent more than 20 years "championing the rights of victims and survivors of crime."
The candidates also disagreed on whether Philadelphia should be a so-called sanctuary city that doesn't cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
Grossman said she would uphold the rule of law and couldn't endorse the city's sanctuary's status. But she added that the DA's Office doesn't enforce federal immigration policy and that Mayor Kenney was the ultimate decision-maker on the issue.