Carlos Vega: Putting safety first in Philly's criminal justice reform
The longtime Latino prosecutor is poised to give District Attorney Larry Krasner a major run for his money on May 18.
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Carlos Vega knew he wanted to be a prosecutor from an early age. Growing up in Manhattan in the 60s and 70s and watching his mother and father run a bodega, he grew accustomed to a constant fear of violence.
“I was always worried about something happening to my family,” said Vega in an interview with AL DÍA back on April 7.
And it did happen.
He can remember distinct instances where both his great aunt and mother were robbed at knife and gunpoint. The neighborhood he grew up in was also a haven for such violence and drugs.
“Look at his hands, look what he’s doing,” Vega remembered were words from his mother, pointing out the addicts that entered their corner store.
He also had a baseball coach fall into heroin and can remember encountering him while he was on the run from the police for snatching a purse.
“He became a whole different person,” Vega recalled decades later. “He wasn’t a bad person.”
With what he saw, Vega put all of his energy into school and excelled. It was necessary if he was to one day be a support beam for those he saw struggling around him.
“I wanted to be that guy that was the voice for people who were victims of crime like my mom and the kids that were swallowed up by the streets,” said Vega.
For high school, he went to the prestigious, all-boys Cardinal Hayes in the South Bronx. There, Vega learned both the classics of English literature and encountered racism for the first time as one of the few Puerto Rican attendees at a school full of predominantly Irish and Italian students.
When starting college, Vega remembers being placed in remedial English without much of his own input. After rattling off the plots to stories by Milton, Chaucer and Hemingway during one class, he was quickly elevated.
“It wasn’t being mean, the school,” said Vega. “It’s that with the name Carlos Vega, I guess I was typecast.”
He would also spend his four years in undergrad helping his mother run a newsstand closer to where he went to school. She divorced his father in Vega’s senior year of high school.
The days would start at the newsstand at 4 in the morning and end at 9 p.m. at shoe stores across New York City, where he worked as a salesman. In between, there were his classes.
“Me and my mom worked seven days a week,” said Vega.
When the going got tough, no matter the challenge, he would always remember words of wisdom from his mother.
“Life is unfair, get over it. Fight,” she would say.
Those words have rung true throughout Vega’s career as a prosecutor.
After graduating from law school at Boston College, he was recruited into the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office by then-DA Ed Rendell.
By choosing to come to Philly, Vega became Pennsylvania’s first Latino prosecutor. That came with its own set of obstacles.
Early on, Vega can remember everyone new to the office thinking he was one of five to fail the bar exam after the first attempt. He was not.
“Everyone thought I should’ve failed because I’m the Spanish guy,” he said.
Throughout his subsequent 30-plus years in homicide, Vega also recalled instances when officers in the courtroom mistook him for a defendant or defense attorney rather than the prosecutor, when a judge once thought he needed an interpreter, and when he was told by a defense attorney that he only got the 2008 murder case of Philadelphia Police Officer Joseph Trench because he was a “token.”
“When you’re a minority, you have to be better than most just to be average,” said Vega. “You can complain, you can cry, or you can say, ‘bring it on, is that all you got?’”
To this day, he says the greatest compliment he’s ever received in his career was when younger DAs would come into the courtroom as Vega was on trial to watch him work and learn through observation.
“It was not, ‘they’re learning from a Latino prosecutor.’ They were learning from a good lawyer,” he said.
Over 35 years, Vega also worked at UPS at night to support the two kids in his custody. A third went overseas to live with his wife in Ireland.
“Some of the biggest cases by day, and loading and unloading trucks at UPS by night,” he said of the experience.
But after 35 years, Vega’s time at the DA’s Office came to an abrupt end when Larry Krasner took over its leadership in 2018. One of the new DA’s first moves was to dismiss 31 prosecutors (many longtime, like Vega) from the office.
At the time, it hurt Vega and would so more over time, as he eventually got involved in an age discrimination suit against Krasner’s office almost two years later.
For a while after being forced out of the office, Vega says he would get calls from the countless families he advocated for in the past with concerns about the way Krasner’s administration would go about its business.
“I can’t help you, I’m not the DA,” was Vega’s response for some time.
“Why aren’t you?” many would respond.
Now, in 2021, Vega is Krasner’s biggest obstacle to winning a second term in office as his Democratic challenger in the primary set to take place on May 18.
“I’m not a politician,” he told AL DÍA. “I never dreamed of running for political office.”
Since announcing his campaign in front of Krasner’s office in December 2020, Vega’s message has been to paint himself a fighter for victims of crime in the same way he rationalized wanting to become a prosecutor as a young boy, witnessing his family’s plight while running their bodega in Manhattan.
“This city deserves a district attorney that is a voice for the victims,” Vega said at his campaign announcement press conference.
While violent crime has generally trended down across the U.S. in recent years, the homicide rate, especially in cities, has trended way up.
Prior to 2021, Krasner’s three years as Philly DA have seen yearly increases in the amount of homicides across the city, with 2020 being by far the biggest jump, to 499. This year, Philadelphia is on pace to surpass that number and have its worst year on record.
That’s ultimately, according to Vega, what pushed him to put his hat in the ring.
“With the state of what’s happening in our city, I just can’t sit by the sidelines and let it happen,” he said. “I still have that energy and ideas.”
On the issue of gun violence, Vega sees it as the biggest short-term issue to confront to balance his campaign’s overall mission of criminal justice reform and community safety.
When talking to AL DÍA, he cited a need to bring back focused deterrence for law enforcement. The program, which would require collaboration across agencies, identifies and investigates the small groups of individuals in communities that are committing a majority of the violent crimes.
Those individuals are then targeted with resources, training, and job opportunities to show “there’s another way,” as Vega puts it.
Some come around while others don’t, and are prosecuted when further crimes are committed.
In Philadelphia, focused deterrence was first utilized in 2013 to successfully combat homicides in South Philadelphia. Vega has blamed Krasner for its ending, but the strategy was halted in 2016 by Mayor Jim Kenney, two years before Krasner took office.
Currently, the city is trying to bring back a form of the program under the name, group violence intervention.
Another point Vega emphasized when confronting gun violence was the importance of collaboration among law enforcement agencies.
Since taking office, Krasner has been in many public disputes with other regional law enforcement agencies and representatives, like Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office under former Attorney William McSwain, the Philadelphia Police Department, and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5, led by John McNesby.
The FOP has backed Vega ahead of the May 18 primary to the tune of more than $120,000 in campaign donations.
But money aside, Vega argues that the DA’s office should play more of a role than it has to be a mediator between these agencies, especially the police, and Philadelphia communities.
“It’s almost like this administration is throwing fuel on the fire,” he said.
The motivation is to protect Philadelphia’s youth.
“The main objective is our children and their safety in this city,” said Vega. “Put your ego aside.”
In the same vein of connecting better with Philadelphia communities, Vega also has plans to have the DA’s office more present in the city’s schools. The “Adopt-A-School” program, as he put it, would have assistant district attorneys under his watch visit schools in Philadelphia every other week to develop a better connection with students, teachers and parents.
A smaller-scale program of the sort was launched by Temple University’s Black Law Student Association in 2016, also in partnership with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.
Vega sees a larger-scale effort as not only a learning experience for youth to get to meet and look up to a lawyer, but also for the participating ADA to get to know the community better.
“Suddenly, it’s not just a neighborhood they read about in a police report,” he said.
For the community, it puts them in direct contact with the DA’s office.
Vega also spoke about the potential establishment of children’s court within schools for youth to learn more by taking part in a quasi-legal process to resolve issues in the classroom.
“Suddenly, they’re learning conflict resolution,” he said.
On probation, where Krasner has cut the amount of individuals on supervision by a third since taking office, Vega wants to do away with shorter supervision periods and implement a “learn and earn” system.
In short, as the individual under supervision reaches personalized goals that have been set for them, their probation time is reduced. These goals could be anything from completing job training and getting a GED to entering a drug rehab facility.
Once the individual gets a job, Vega says he would terminate the probation and seal the record.
“The person you were when you entered, you were at your lowest point, your dignity is gone,” he said. “I’m not that person I used to be.”
When talking about holding police accountable for their actions, Vega called it a must for rebuilding community trust and pointed to his own record of successfully prosecuting police officers under Rendell, Lynne Abraham and Seth Williams.
“Unlike anyone who’s running for office now, I have prosecuted bad cops and they have gone to jail,” he said.
Vega went on to attack Krasner’s record, who while prosecuting 51 officers in his time as DA, has yet to get a single conviction. For him, it’s a question of training and competency at the DA’s office.
“When an officer is arrested, they get the best legal talent there is in the city,” he said. “If you’re gonna face a top of the line legal defense attorney, you had better have a top of the line prosecutor.”
In regards to some of the reforms to come out of 2020, Vega said he has no issue with having public input on police contract negotiations, but was less supportive of budget cuts.
He pointed to the lack of body cams for all Philadelphia police officers as an example of what could happen with less funding.
“We need to get to the point that every officer is wearing a body cam to hold them accountable,” said Vega. “A body cam speaks volumes.”
In the end, Vega is toeing a line between continuing some of the reform initiatives put in place under Krasner, but with a much bigger focus on punishment for those jumping out of line.
He calls it a “third alternative” that doesn’t lock everyone up, but also enforces proper safety in communities.
“We need both and we deserve both,” said Vega.
It sounds good on paper, but only time will tell if it resonates with Philadelphia residents. They will have final say on May 18, 2021.