Few people have seen the big picture of criminal justice in Philadelphia the way that Kevin Harden Jr. has seen it -- selling drugs on the street corners of West Philly and even wounded in a gun fight as a youth, then turning it all around
, getting his law degree and spending a half dozen years in the district attorney's office under Seth Williams.
Now in private practice, the 31-year-old Harden spent his Election Day working for the man who promised to radically change that system, the veteran civil-rights attorney Lawrence Krasner.
"Larry understands that poor people get the short end of the stick," Harden told me by phone early last night from Election Court, where he was challenging campaign irregularities on his candidate's behalf. He cited Kranser's promise to end cash bail and not lock up non-violent arrestees who pose no apparent threat to the community. "He's going to be sensible -- to make sure his policies don't affect the poorest and most marginal communities."
What was that sound? Nothing less than the stirrings of a whole different kind of revolution from the city that gave America the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights -- a revolution aimed at finally undoing draconian justice regime that had turned the Cradle of Liberty into a death-penalty capital and the poster child for mass incarceration
Krasner told his wildly enthusiastic supporters tonight that "[o]ur vision is of a criminal justice system that makes things better, that is just, that is based on preventing crime and is based on building up society rather than tearing it apart."
His win also seems to prove the theory that history moves in 50 year cycles. It was the fall of 1967 -- nearly five decades ago, when a promised "Summer of Love" devolved into the so-called "long hot summer
" of urban riots -- that Democrat James Tate won a hard-fought re-election (against Arlen Specter) by promising to make "law-and-order" cop Frank Rizzo his police commissioner.
Despite the radical message, Harden -- the former ADA -- said all he wants to see from Krasner is to continue the spirit of reform that had been promised when Williams replaced Abraham in 2010, only to collapse amid his personal ambitions and foibles. He said that most prosecutors want real change but that "a vocal minority" in the DA's office can -- and has -- thwarted reform.
Harden questioned why the office continues to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defending death penalty verdicts. "It's a waste of money," he said. "It's a waste of resources."
But if Krasner's win is indeed a revolution, tonight was only Lexington and Concord. Many more proverbial shots will be fired. The influential Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed third-place finisher Rich Negrin, is certain to be livid over Krasner's primary win, and likely to throw everything it has behind the more traditional GOP candidate Beth Grossman -- a former prosecutor -- in the November election. But could a Republican ever win again in Philly? In the age of Trump? It sure seems like a tarnished brand, at least around these parts.
The real problem for Krasner -- if he stays on track to win in the fall -- will be institutional opposition from cops and at least some of the 300 career prosecutors in the DA's office, a group that Philadelphia journalist Ryan Briggs dubbed "the deep state" of criminal justice in the city. Already, 12 former DA's office employees have ripped Krasner in an open letter
, calling his reform ideas "dangerous," and adding, "imagine working for someone who has openly demonized what you do everyday." That kind of over-the-top rhetoric will only heat up in the months ahead.
But those concerns were shrugged off today by the thousands of Philadelphians who went to the polls with visions of a city that finds new ways to steer its young people away from crime and drugs without feeding the schools-to-prison pipeline.
"Prisons are more expensive to run than hospitals," Harden told me. "The lights are on all the time." The coming months will tell if tonight was the night that the lights -- some of them, anyway -- went out Philly. This much is clear: We live in revolutionary times.
[Will Bunch has worked at the Daily News for 20-plus years and is now senior writer. Since 2005, he’s written the uber-opinionated, fair-but-dangerously unbalanced opinion blog "Attytood," covering a range of topics (but mostly politics and the media these days); it’s been named best blog in the state by the Associated Press Managing Editors and best blog in the city by Philadelphia Magazine. He’s also authored three full-length books and three Amazon Kindle Single e-books, including 2015’s The Bern Identity: A Search for Bernie Sanders and the New American Dream. Prior to coming to Philadelphia, he worked at New York Newsday, where he was part of a team that won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting.]