Your Guide to Criminal Justice in Pennsylvania’s Elections Today

From a historic DA race to judge candidates against mass incarceration, these elections could reshape the criminal legal system.

Daniel Nichanian   |    May 18, 2021

Protestors in Philadelphia in June 2020 (Photo by Chris Henry/Unsplash)

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

From the Philadelphia DA race to judge candidates who are running against mass incarceration, these elections could reshape the criminal legal system.

It’s Election Day in Pennsylvania, and it’s a big one for criminal justice. Here’s your guide to how The Appeal has covered these elections in recent months.

Philadelphia is voting for its DA, and Larry Krasner’s reforms face a major test

Since he was elected district attorney of Philadelphia in 2017, former civil rights attorney Larry Krasner has become an emblem for the nationwide movement to upend the criminal legal system from the inside. The movement’s proponents have pointed to his victory and policies as inspiration; its detractors, which included officials in the Trump administration, have cited Krasner into one of their leading foils for progressive approaches to criminal justice.

Today Krasner faces a primary challenge from Carlos Vega, a former prosecutor whom he fired when he came into office. The Appeal delved into Philadelphia in recent months. Among its coverage is a three-part Political Report series delving into the contrasts and policy ramifications on three specific issues: probation, drug prosecutions, and immigration.

Our election eve preview: The Battle for DA Is Testing Philadelphia’s Commitment to Reform. Larry Krasner ended an era of tough-on-crime policies in the DA’s office and sparked a nationwide movement. Now voters will decide whether to continue on this path. [Read Maura Ewing in the Political Report.]

Our profile Larry Krasner’s first term: The Successes and Shortcomings of Larry Krasner’s Trailblazing First Term. Philadelphia’s top prosecutor has made good on promises to reduce incarceration in the city. His re-election bid will be a litmus test for the progressive prosecutor movement he helped start. [Read Joshua Vaughn in The Appeal.]

Our coverage of the stake for probation: Philadelphia DA. Race Tests Larry Krasner’s Sweeping Probation Reforms. The population of people under supervision has dropped during Krasner’s first term, but his opponent in the May primary wants to roll back his changes. [Read Maura Ewing in the Political Report.]

Our coverage of the stake for drug policy: Philadelphia DA Race Could Ramp Up the War on Drugs. Larry Krasner has been dropping drug possession charges at a growing pace. But his challenger in the May 18 primary wants to send these cases to drug court. [Read Maura Ewing in the Political Report.]

Our coverage of the stake for immigration: Philadelphia DA Candidates Debate ICE Cooperation Ahead of Election Day. DA Larry Krasner pursued reforms to protect immigrant defendants from ICE. Will they survive his re-election race? [Read Will Lennon in the Political Report.]

Our statewide polling: In Run-Up To District Attorney Primaries, Pennsylvania Voters Support Criminal Justice Reforms. We surveyed Pennsylvania voters on key issues central to district attorney races, including bail, probation, sentencing, and drug policies. [Read Molly Greene and Sean McElwee in The Lab.] 

Also read other coverage on the policy stakes of the Philadelphia DA election, including exonerations in the Philadelphia Inquirer and police unions in the Washington Post.

Pittsburgh is voting for its mayor, and the incumbent’s record faces scrutiny

Pittsburgh is experiencing a major housing crisis that the pandemic has aggravated. And the incumbent mayor faced a lot of criticism for his handling of the police response to protests last summer. Today those are major issues in the Democratic primary between Mayor Bill Peduto and state Representative Ed Gainey, who is running as a progressive.

How Policing Is Shaping the Pittsburgh Mayoral Race. Incumbent Bill Peduto’s policing record is under scrutiny after protests last summer. He is facing what may be his most competitive race yet. [Read Joshua Vaughn in The Appeal.] 

How Demands for Affordable Housing Are Defining Pittsburgh’s Mayoral Race. A disproportionate number of Black residents have left the city, and advocates say the next mayor needs to ensure greater access to housing. [Read Joshua Vaughn in The Appeal.] 

Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) will also decide a referendum on prohibiting solitary confinement in jails

Solitary confinement is used in prisons and jails around the nation—plunging people into torturous conditions, often for very long periods—and it fuels the crisis of deaths in jails. To date few state or local governments have adopted restrictions on solitary confinement. (New York recently became the first state to ban its use for more than 15 consecutive days.) These abuses have led activists in Allegheny County to organize a ballot initiative to change jail conditions.

Pittsburgh Voters May Ban Solitary Confinement in Jail Today. A ballot initiative would limit how long incarcerated people can be held in isolation. Allegations of abusive conditions in the local jail led activists to push for the reform. [Read Ahmari Anthony in the Political Report.] 

Progressives hope to make a splash in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia’s judge elections

Despite their tremendous power in the criminal legal system, local judges still largely escape the spotlight that has been turned in recent years on prosecutors. In 2020, though, progressive activists focused some of their energies on boosting judicial candidates who were often public defenders.  The candidates ran on reducing sentencing and avoiding bail, with some success in New Orleans, Cincinnati, and Las Vegas.

Will that budding movement continue gaining strength in Pennsylvania today? In Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) and Philadelphia, the state’s two most populous urban centers, activists have turned usually neglected judicial elections into key political battles. The Appeal covered their stakes—and explained what judges even do—in recent months.

How Local Judges Shape the Criminal Legal System in Pennsylvania, Explained. Our deep dive into the powers of local judges. [Read Maria Hawilo in The Lab.]

How Pittsburgh Activists Are Seizing a Rare Chance to Reshape Courts. Grassroots groups are backing a slate of judge candidates. If elected, they could curb bail, high sentences, and other drivers of mass incarceration. [Read Sam Mellins in the Political Report.]

A Pittsburgh Judge Wants to Use the Bench to Fight Evictions and Mass Incarceration. Mik Pappas, elected judge in 2017 with the support of the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter, is now running for a higher judgeship as part of a slate that wants to change the legal system in Allegheny County. [Read Joshua Vaughn in the Political Report.] 

Philly’s Judge Elections This Month Have the Power to Change the City. Activists are backing judge candidates in Philadelphia’s primary who want to reduce the use of cash bail, avoid long sentences, and bolster tenant protections. [Read Maura Ewing in the Political Report.]