The Atlantic

The Search for Progressive Judges

Activists have swept a new wave of prosecutors into office. Is the focus now shifting to the judiciary?
Source: Courtesy of Reclaim Philadelphia

In 1989, when John Blount was just 17, he was convicted of a double homicide. Blount was sentenced to death, and later re-sentenced to life in prison without a chance for parole. While incarcerated, he started a mentoring program for kids, kept a nearly spotless disciplinary record, and got his GED. He was written up only once, for owning a contraband radio. In 2016, following a series of Supreme Court decisions deeming mandatory life-without-parole sentences unconstitutional for defendants under 18, Blount was made eligible for a resentencing. Before his resentencing hearing in 2018, his lawyer had worked with the Philadelphia district attorney’s office to negotiate a 29-year-to-life sentence. The judge, however, disagreed. “I cannot discount two lives,” said Judge Barbara McDermott after rejecting the negotiated sentence. “I believe in proportionality in a sentence.” Her sentence, 35 to life, will make him eligible for parole at the age of 52. (Blount’s attorney is now petitioning the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to consider the case.)

It used to be unheard of for Philadelphia judges to reject a negotiated sentence in these resentencings—until Larry Krasner, arguably the most progressive prosecutor in the country, resentencing agreements. Recently, some judges reportedly an initiative, developed by Krasner, to seek shorter probation sentences.

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