by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The term “progressive prosecutor” has catapulted into the national consciousness and has dominated discussions about prosecutorial reform that it has become nearly synonymous with the idea of reform itself. The two are not interchangeable, though, and a narrative that treats them as such risks shortchanging the breadth of prosecutorial reform’s appeal, thus limiting its potential.
The label’s popularity owes much to the election of several reform-minded liberals as district attorneys over the last few years. Often campaigning on explicit promises to shake up the status quo, these leaders have provided a much-needed disruption to typically uneventful district attorney races in which incumbents could previously expect reelection irrespective of their record. Once in office, these “progressive prosecutors” have garnered headlines for their policies and rhetoric alike, helping to shape and drive a perception that prosecutorial reform is decidedly liberal in nature.
But strip away the “progressive” branding of the policies and the left-leaning personalities advocating on their behalf, and most of these initiatives are not intrinsically left-wing. Indeed, some even look downright conservative.
One of the reforms instituted by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, the poster child of the “progressive prosecutor” movement, provides one particularly emblematic example. In 2018, Krasner ordered his prosecutors to consider the costs of incarceration associated with each sentencing recommendation. With its potential to deter unnecessarily lengthy sentences, the policy was a natural fit within Krasner’s larger push to fight mass incarceration. Yet if you remove that description and Krasner’s name, the proposal, framed as an innovative way to extend consideration of taxpayer dollars to government decision-making, looks like something straight out of a fiscal conservative’s playbook.