Is “tough-on-crime” on its way out?

ACLU of Pennsylvania
6 min readMay 19, 2017


By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Democratic voters in Centre County opted not to nominate District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller for another term. Photo via Centre Daily Times.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum last week ordering federal prosecutors to “enforce the law fairly and consistently” — which meant doling out harsh mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug crimes. Doing so, Sessions wrote, would ensure that prosecutors “meet the high standards required of the Department of Justice for charging and sentencing.”

It would also, according to Rand Paul among others, ruin lives without much of an upside.

One could be excused for feeling some outrage in response to Sessions’ memorandum — a sense that “tough-on-crime” policies are making their way back into accepted public policy despite reams of data indicating they don’t work.

Closer to home, however, there were reasons to believe “tough-on-crime” is on its way out.

In Philadelphia County, District Attorney Seth Williams had been accused of taking bribes, of reneging on promises, and of pushing hard for tough-on-crime policies that few had predicted he’d embrace when he ran on a supposedly progressive platform in 2009. Williams did not run for reelection this week — the predictable result of a federal indictment targeting Williams on bribery charges.

On Tuesday, Larry Krasner prevailed in Philadelphia’s district attorney primary. Krasner has never served as a prosecutor before — an asset at a time when prosecutors are being blamed for helping to astronomically increase incarceration rates. He has also represented a range of civil rights and social justice activists, including Black Lives Matter, Occupy Philadelphia, and protesters at the 2000 Republican National Convention and the 2016 Democratic National Convention. As a candidate who ran on a progressive agenda, who has a history of standing up for civil rights, and who promised to reroute drug offenders out of the criminal justice system, Krasner is a welcome change from Williams. Krasner proved that candidates can run on what we’ve termed “smart justice” and win.

Tuesday’s primary election in Centre County went similarly. There, in a race to be the lead prosecutor in a county that includes State College, University Park, and the county seat of Bellefonte, incumbent Stacy Parks Miller sought the Democratic nomination for district attorney. Days earlier, Parks Miller had announced charges against 18 people allegedly responsible for the death of a Penn State University fraternity brother. Parks Miller received almost universally positive media attention in the wake those charges — a welcome contribution to any campaign.

But Centre County residents knew something that most national news outlets didn’t mention: In addition to being a tough-on-crime prosecutor, Parks had a troubling past. Slate helpfully summarized parts of that past this week. Among other misdeeds, Parks Miller “crossed ethical and possibly legal lines by doing things like faking a Facebook account to catfish defendants, texting a judge during a trial, and ordering a staffer to forge a judge’s signature,” Slate’s Jessica Pishko wrote.

Parks Miller lost her bid Tuesday to again recapture the Democratic nomination to Bernie Cantorna — a candidate who ran a campaign based on “smart on crime” policies, fairness, transparency, and equal protection.

ACLU-PA does not endorse candidates for office. We are, however, for smart justice policies that will create a 21st century criminal justice system. The old ways are failed ideas that sent the national incarceration rate skyrocketing in the latter decades of the 20th century.

In at least two Pennsylvania counties, it appears “tough-on-crime” is on its way out.

Let’s hope those counties carry out smart sentencing policies — and that fair and consistent policies will soon show Sessions that his retrograde tough-on-crime policies should be on their way out, too.


(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

Posters welcome attendees — some of them undocumented — to a church in South Philadelphia. Photo from
  • “The Undocumented: Since the election of Donald Trump as president, anxiety has risen within the community of those living in the United States without settled immigration status. Here are some of the human stories behind the policies and the fears.”

“Undocumented parents grapple with the possibility of being separated from their U.S.-born children, who are American citizens. Their children struggle to understand their place in this country. Young people who crossed the border as children and are living in Philadelphia under the protection of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) are unsure what will become of the Obama-era policy that allows them to work and study here. Many are taking public transportation for fear of being pulled over in cars, detained, and possibly deported. Others have stopped going out at night, avoiding unnecessary encounters with authorities. A few families have reportedly left the country. Yet, many highlighted what they consider a silver lining in the growing frenzy: More undocumented immigrants have engaged in community organizing, increasingly interested in educating themselves about their rights here.”

  • Post-Gazette: “Crowd protests DA’s handling of Woodland Hills investigation”

“A crowd of protesters on Friday called on Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. to recuse himself from investigating an alleged case of abuse in the Woodland Hills School District, saying they want state Attorney General Josh Shapiro to take it over. The Alliance for Police Accountability held the rally at which about 60 people also called on Mr. Zappala to drop the charges against three students who claim they were abused at the hands of a Woodland Hills principal and school resource officer. ‘This is an iceberg,’ said Summer Lee, a Swissvale resident and an alumna of Woodland Hills High School who was among those chanting and waving signs outside the Allegheny County Courthouse. ‘That means there’s more underneath.’” Related from TribLive: Woodland Hills board hires PR firm for $350 per hour. Commentary from Braddock mayor John Fetterman on Twitter: “PR Tip #1: School personnel should avoid telling students ‘I’m gonna knock your f’ing teeth down your throat.’”

“Krasner, of the seven Democratic candidates for this office, was the scariest. He deliberately traveled with those who attack the police, who challenge the idea that drugs laws are necessary, who think that the death penalty should be reserved only for the innocent victims of crime and not the perpetrators, and who think the Constitution is, as a great judge once argued it was not, a suicide pact. That, in fact, is what I think Philadelphians did on primary night: They killed the good, decent part of the civic society that believes in accountability for the guilty and justice for the aggrieved. Perhaps it’s wrong to blame all of Philadelphia for what happened, because only a small percent actually ventured out to slit our collective throats with their votes, but the result is the same: We are doomed.”

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