The Atlantic

Can Philadelphia's Next District Attorney Follow Through on Reform?

The seven Democratic candidates competing in Tuesday’s primary have big goals for the city’s justice system. But there’s no telling if they’ll be able to succeed where others have failed.
Source: Mark Makela/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA—The race for district attorney here is crowded with reformists. The seven Democrats in Tuesday’s primary—which constitutes a de facto election in this solidly blue city—are all running on popular ticket items for the small but growing wave of “reform-minded” prosecutors assuming office across the country. Those include fixing the cash bail and civil-asset forfeiture systems, amping up diversion programs, and curbing or eliminating the death penalty, which Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf currently has under a moratorium.

Philadelphia is a city with deep tough-on-crime roots, but it’s also one where voters have shown an appetite for these measures. Last year, the city elected a mayor, Jim Kenney, who ran on a platform with criminal-justice reform at its center, and six years earlier backed the now-outgoing DA, Seth Williams, who’d similarly offered change. Together they perhaps represent two stages in the life cycle of reformists: Kenney with his plans still unfolding, and Williams with his largely dashed.

Though Williams was ultimately undone by a still-ongoing corruption scandal—he is currently under federal indictment

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