Is The ACLU Aiming to Elect Soft on Crime Prosecutors?

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has decided to get involved in local District Attorney elections around the country. The ACLU says this effort, #VoteSmartJustice, won’t endorse specific candidates. Rather, the ACLU says it’s an effort to educate voters about prosecutors and teach them how important D.A. races are:

The first of the initiative’s efforts is underway in Philadelphia, where the Campaign for Smart Justice is working closely with the ACLU of Pennsylvania to conduct an aggressive voter education effort before the May 16 primary. Dubbed #VoteSmartJustice, this effort has trained dozens of canvassers, most of whom are formerly incarcerated individuals advocating for criminal justice reform, to blanket neighborhoods throughout the city to inform voters about the election and underscore the importance of holding prosecutor candidates accountable for their records. Among the people to be targeted are the 11,000 ACLU members who are registered to vote in Philadelphia.

The ACLU says it isn’t endorsing candidates, but it’s likely the group has a favorite in the Philadelphia DA race. There are eight candidates in the primary; seven democrats and one Republican. The field is populated, for the most part, by municipal judges and former prosecutors. The exception is 56 year old civil rights attorney Larry Krasner. His presence on the ballot could be an indication that the ACLU didn’t pick Philadelphia at random to launch the #VoteSmartJustice effort:

Krasner, 56, has tried to differentiate himself as the true progressive in the May 16 Democratic primary. For those who doubt that, he points to his record. For 30 years he has worked as a criminal defense attorney specializing in civil rights. He has earned renown representing activists and protesters, including 400 people arrested during the 2000 Republican National Convention, AIDS activists, and members of Black Lives Matter.

Krasner has received a major assist from billionaire liberal George Soros.


Billionaire George Soros, with a check for $1.45 million last week, upended the money race in the Democratic primary campaign for district attorney in Philadelphia.


On April 28, Soros poured that cash into Philadelphia Justice and Public Safety, an independent political action committee running television ads in support of civil rights lawyer Larry Krasner, according to a campaign finance report filed Friday.


That PAC spent $497,456 of the money in the first two days after it registered in Philadelphia on April 25. It paid for TV commercials, campaign literature, and online ads, and for people to canvass the city’s neighborhoods, seeking support for Krasner.

And the effort won’t be confined to Philly:

Approximately 3,000 prosecutors throughout the country are responsible for making decisions that affect the lives of millions of people. The public knows too little about prosecutors and their impact on communities.


Although the mandate of prosecutors is to advance justice, many district attorneys have focused on punishment at any cost. This approach has increased the jail and prison population; led to sentences that are too severe for the offenses; produced more wrongful convictions and more death sentences; and sent people with addictions, disabilities, and mental health conditions into jails and prisons who should receive treatment or other social services instead. These consequences of unchecked prosecutorial power burden people of color and the poor disproportionately.


To redirect prosecutors’ focus towards reducing mass incarceration, the Campaign for Smart Justice will use its prosecutorial reform initiative to pursue a series of high-impact, locally driven efforts. Together with the ACLU’s state affiliates and on-the-ground advocates, the initiative will follow a three-prong strategy:


  • Litigation: The initiative is hiring new litigators to file ten lawsuits aimed at holding prosecutors accountable and changing their policies and practices.
  • Legislative advocacy: The initiative will serve as a clearinghouse for prosecutor reform legislation, actively supporting the passage of key reform measures in ten states.
  • Voter education: The initiative will engage in nonpartisan efforts in ten prosecutorial elections, conducting voter education about the role that local prosecutors play in fueling mass incarceration.

And despite the insistence that they won’t be endorsing candidates, the ACLU concedes that the #VoteSmartJustice effort does represent a foray into electoral politics:

For most of our 97-year history, the ACLU has shied away from electoral politics. Our involvement in the election process has been largely focused on securing and protecting the right to vote for all Americans, particularly those who have been historically disenfranchised.

But times and tactics change. And the ACLU recognizes that if we’re ever really going to fix a large, entrenched problem like mass incarceration, we must throw everything we’ve got at the problem. As part of its Smart Justice Campaign, a multi-year effort to reduce mass incarceration and eliminate racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the ACLU recently announced plans for nonpartisan voter education and engagement campaigns in 10 prosecutorial races. Philadelphia is the first.

Krasner’s background suggests he would be a very defendant friendly prosecutor:

Krasner says that if he is elected, the DA’s Office will no longer seek the death penalty in capital murder cases. That would represent a sea change. When Lynne M. Abraham was at the helm, she was labeled “the deadliest DA” by the New York Times for the frequency with which she sought capital punishment. Krasner says little has changed, and describes the office in unapologetically harsh terms.

“I have seen, in essence, a system that has completely run off the rails,” Krasner said. “A place with a mad zeal for the highest charge, for the highest level of conviction, a culture that can find no flaw in police misconduct, that is drunk on the death penalty. It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion for 30 years.”

Ex-offender, 39 year old Robert Goode was a volunteer door-knocker for the Philadelphia effort. He told that he made one thing clear when he went door to door: “Because our status is [a nonprofit], we can’t be seen as trying to influence the election,” he said. “We can only go out and educate our neighbors.”

Yet it seems unlikely that any candidate in the May 16 Philadelphia primary would be a better fit than Krasner for the type of prosecutor the ACLU seems to champion with #VoteSmartJustice

D.A. candidates around the country historically have run on “tough on crime” platforms. But incarceration rates have become a front burner issues from progressives in general and the ACLU specifically in recent decades. if the #VoteSmartJustice “nonpartisan voter education” effort assists Krasner in winning in Philadelphia (whether the ACLU will admit to favoring him or not), it could be the beginning of a coordinated effort to fill District Attorney offices around the country with prosecutors more interested in keeping defendants out of prison than keeping criminals off the streets.