The Philadelphia Inquirer Just Endorsed Mass Incarceration
In May, Philadelphians went to the polls and made history, voting by a large margin to back civil rights attorney Larry Krasner in the city’s Democratic primary for district attorney. On Sunday, residents awoke to find that the Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board had endorsed Krasner’s Republican opponent, Beth Grossman, a former top prosecutor in the District Attorney’s Office.
Krasner rallied Philadelphians to an upstart, radical campaign calling for an end to the era of mass incarceration and impunity for police misconduct. The city’s struggling paper of record endorsed a candidate who presided over a nationally infamous civil asset forfeiture program through which prosecutors seized homes and other property from city residents, oftentimes poor and working-class, black and Latino. At least, the editorial gushed, she has “a welcome hesitancy to go for the death penalty.”
Philadelphians want change. The Inquirer board ploddingly declared itself for the enervating cause of defending an intolerable status quo that will most likely be defeated on election day.
But points for consistency: Grossman is the second candidate for top prosecutor the paper has endorsed who has also been backed by the city’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5, an unapologetically reactionary officers union headed by a man who recently called Black Lives Matter protesters “a pack of wild animals.” That first FOP-backed candidate the Inquirer endorsed was Rich Negrin, one of Krasner’s primary opponents. Oddly, the board’s praise for Negrin included a note that the “criminal justice pendulum has been swinging in a new direction for some time, away from ‘tough on crime,’” but failed to mention that it was Krasner’s insurgent, movement-based campaign that had swung the primary field to the left.
It’s remarkable that the board’s opposition to Krasner, a candidate who won the primary on a wave of grassroots mobilization that has become a nationwide model for activists, is explained in so few words. The one clearly stated rationale for opposing him is that he has not been a prosecutor before. The board celebrates Grossman as “a career prosecutor” while suggesting that with Krasner, “voters should be concerned about his lack of prosecutorial experience — and mindset — needed to head an office whose job is to prosecute crime.” Inexperience as a prosecutor, however, didn’t stop the board from endorsing Josh Shapiro — a career politician who alighted from work as a young Congressional aide to the state House — in his successful 2016 run for Attorney General.
I’ll climb out on a limb and propose that it is almost as if the board is not giving the public a truthful account of why they oppose him. That honest reason, I’ll venture, has something to do with their dig on Krasner’s “mindset.” Explaining why they oppose this “mindset” — one that believes prosecutors must use their extraordinary power and discretion to help end the mass caging of more than two million Americans, and to reject the all-too-normal complicity with lying and abusive cops — would have made this shameful endorsement at least seem less cowardly.
What the Inquirer’s editorial board suffers from is a familiar case of the liberal establishment’s fetishization of technocracy, whereby a narrowly-tailored standard of experience that only a creature of the establishment could meet is prized above all else. Indeed, their editorial endorsing Hillary Clinton and panning Bernie Sanders (who has supported Krasner) employed the same rationale: Sanders, they wrote, was the “campaign’s unlikely poet laureate” but was “surprisingly short on the prose behind the poetry.” Expertise and competence are critical. But talent and experience running a brutally oppressive system should count as demerits rather than laudatory achievements. The Inquirer editorial board professes to want change yet can only seem to support candidates who will guarantee more of the same.
In reality, the board’s rationale is a pretext to protect an office that has long prized convictions and lengthy sentences regardless of the costs or whether the outcomes comport with any sense of justice. The Inquirer praises Grossman for her career going “after drug dealers, gunslingers, thieves, and blighters” and her “passion for defending the rights of crime victims.” Not a word about mass incarceration. To editorialize in favor of such a brutal status quo is an insult to the Philadelphians on whose behalf the board purports to be writing.
Many dogged reporters at the Inquirer and Daily News have exposed criminal justice system abuses. But the editorial board’s interest in injustice rarely extends beyond the cases of penny-ante-if-corrosive corruption that pervade politics in the state. Even as mass incarceration has become a defining moral issue, the board has paid precious little attention to the damage caused not only by crime but also by the criminal justice’s response to it: generations of families in a heavily poor, working-class and non-white city torn apart by imprisonment.
The Inquirer, like its sister tabloid the Daily News, has suffered tremendously in recent years as falling revenues have led to round after round of staff cuts. The city has suffered as a result. But the Inquirer editorial board is doing the paper no favors by making it seem less relevant and less in touch with the city than ever.
In the past, The Inquirer has endorsed both former District Attorney Seth Williams and state Attorney General Kathleen Kane. Both are now out of their jobs after criminal convictions, the former for committing shameful but rather pathetic acts of corruption and the latter for charges stemming from petty and vengeance-driven misconduct. Where was their criticism when Williams, who had run as a progressive reformer, fought to oppose marijuana decriminalization, and ran an office that condoned police perjury and energetically endeavored to keep wrongfully convicted Philadelphians behind bars for life? Or how about when reporter Isaiah Thompson published an investigation at my alma mater, the defunct Philadelphia City Paper, exposing the state-sanctioned theft that Grossman engineered at the DA’s office through its civil asset forfeiture program? Crickets. The Inquirer without much skepticism notes Grossman “says she was following the rules at that time.” Just following the rules? Okay then. I’ll refrain from taking easy shots at that excuse.
The Inquirer endorsement did have a few words of praise for Krasner. “He rightly argues that it spends too many resources going after the poor and disenfranchised, and not enough on those who victimize Philadelphians,” they wrote. But even this friendly caveat doesn’t make much sense and gets Krasner’s campaign entirely wrong. Krasner has called for funds to be reallocated from prisons to schools, not from one sort of prosecution to another.
This editorial’s most galling failure is that it does not comprehend or acknowledge how many Philly lives mass incarceration has destroyed. The Krasner campaign is not about Larry Krasner. It’s about a grassroots rebellion against a brutal criminal justice status quo that churned Philadelphians into a state prison system that as of the end of 2016 held more than 13,000 people from the city. It’s a status quo that the editorial board is either somehow ignorant of or, more troublingly, content to leave in place.
Disclosure: Larry Krasner is a colleague of mine at the Fair Punishment Project. Yet, a quick perusal of my work should make it abundantly clear that my support for Krasner predates this shared affiliation.