Philadelphia, PA- This week we celebrate Mother’s Day, but some mothers have lost their precious children. Some moms, like me, to violent crimes. Do you know that there is no name for us? Widows are wives that survive husbands, but there is no word to describe a mother that has lost a child.
My son Alejandro Rojas Garcia was murdered in 2015, and the first time I met Carlos Vega was at the preliminary hearing of the now convicted killer. Losing a son, a child, or anyone you love to a sudden, senseless, and violent death is devastating. I know that there is no way to bring Alex back, but his life mattered. His life was precious.
Carlos Vega worked tirelessly to balance the scales of justice and recognize the severity of the act of murder. Carols Vega was there for us. He was patient, compassionate, and caring. He stayed in contact with us. We asked for numerous meetings, and he welcomed us each time. Now, after thirty-five (35) years working for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. Carlos Vega is a candidate for the District Attorney of Philadelphia. Election day is on May 18.
So, I am on a Zoom call waiting to interview Carlos about his platform and his ideas for reform. As I look across the screen to his side of a video call, I see family pictures on the wall and a nice photo of him and his mother. Carlos is always talking about his mother and how important she has always been in his life. Stories of mothers and their sons are woven together.
I take a sip of my ice tea, and then Carlos walks into the room wearing a blue suit and the iconic boutonniere on his left lapel. He sits in front of the camera with a bright smile and a jolt of energy!
Carlos: Ok, Let’s do this!
Aleida: Hi Carlos, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this interview.
Carlos: My pleasure. Thank you as well for the interview and the opportunity to share my platform with residents of Philadelphia.
Aleida: Tell us about your background and how it led you to your chosen career?
Carlos: I grew up in New York City at the height of the heroin epidemic in the 70s. My mom migrated to New York when she was 16 years old, with nothing but hope and a strong work ethic. She worked hard and saved enough money to bring my grandmother and my aunt here as well. She later met my father, who was also from Puerto Rico, and gave birth to me soon after. When I was four years old, my mother remarried, and together with her new husband, she opened a bodega. My mom’s bodega was the foundation of my family’s livelihood, and the entire family helped run the store. Unfortunately, my mom’s bodega was also the target of petty and violent crime from shoplifters and robberies at knifepoint and gunpoint. I wish I could say we were the exception, but many in our community were constantly subject to crime.
Aleida: Sounds like you are very close to your mom.
Carlos: Definitely, My mom is in her nineties. She is everything to me. She worked so hard to raise us and give her children a better life, and now it is my turn to take care of her. I see her weekly and take her to get her pedicures. Growing up, I was always worried about my mother’s safety in the bodega because we were held up at gunpoint as well as knifepoint. My prayers were always asking God to keep my mother and family safe.
Aleida: What was it like to grow up at that time?
Carlos: We worked hard, but we also suffered from systemic injustices. Many of my friends, who were just as smart—or even smarter—than me, were swallowed up by the streets. They turned to drugs and violence because they did not have access to opportunity or a real path to redemption. These experiences led me to work my way through college and law school and practice law. I always wanted to be a prosecutor because I wanted to keep people safe and speak up for hardworking people like my mother. I was the first Latino to serve as a prosecutor in Pennsylvania and, of course, in Philadelphia.
Aleida: Why are you running for District Attorney?
Carlos: I’m running for District Attorney because I have the experience and vision to make our city safer and bring real progressive reform when our city experiences an epidemic of violence. I have devoted my career to protecting Philadelphians and standing up for marginalized communities.
Aleida: Philadelphia is facing serious challenges. 499 people were murderers last year and 2,240 were shot, making it one of the most violent years in the city’s history. Several of the shooting victims were children. This year there has been a 35-45 % increase in homicides. What will you do as DA to help stop the violence?
Carlos: As District Attorney, I will work with local, state, and federal agencies to curb the flow of illegal guns into Philadelphia. I will refocus the mission of the office back to victims and be their voice. I will ensure that the District Attorney’s Office has frequent communication with victims and their families. I will root out inequities in the system. As District Attorney, I will seek to ensure that the Philadelphia Police and the District Attorney’s Office work together and are more attentive and responsive to the specific needs of each local community.
Aleida: What policies instituted by the Krasner Administration would you reverse or eliminate?
Carlos: I believe Mr. Krasner’s entire approach to prosecution is misguided. He has chosen to stop prosecuting many offenses because he believes that the conditions that give rise to those offenses should not be addressed by the criminal justice system. But by refusing to prosecute these crimes—an abdication of the core function of the District Attorney’s office—Mr. Krasner has given up the ability to mandate treatment or rehabilitation to address the root causes of crime.
Aleida: What policies instituted by the Krasner Administration would you keep or enhance?
Carlos: I would expand the Conviction Integrity Unit to ensure that no one is serving time for crimes that did not commit. As District Attorney, I would increase the quality of re-investigations and speed up the initial intake review. No innocent person should have to wait two or three years to have an initial assessment completed. I would also staff the unit with experienced former defense attorneys, prosecutors, and investigators with trial and investigatory experience.
Aleida: What should be the role and the relationship between the DAO and the Philadelphia Police Department?
Carlos: I believe the DAO and the Philadelphia Police Department should have a close working relationship to help ensure public safety. I would seek the help of other law enforcement civic groups to mend the ties between the police and our communities. As District Attorney, I also believe it is important to hold people accountable for their actions, including police officers who engage in misconduct and criminal acts.
Aleida: Do you believe that the present administration’s Conviction Integrity Unit has been too aggressive? What will you do to alter the CIU?
Carlos: You must pursue justice zealously. But the CIU must have seasoned attorneys who have worked both as defense attorneys and prosecutors and approach each case with an open mind. The CIU’s mission falls short because they do not continue seeking justice in that they do not investigate to find the actual perpetrators. The victim’s family deserves some finality to their case.
Aleida: Are you in favor of banning no-knock warrants? Why or why not?
Carlos: Yes, because as a general rule, no-knock warrants are not effective as they may endanger both the police serving the warrant and the individual being served.
Aleida: How will you build a working relationship with the Police Department?
Carlos: As District Attorney, I would ensure regular dialogue between my office, the police department, and community and religious leaders. I would have an open-door policy that encourages stakeholders to come to the DAO to address their needs or concerns.
Aleida: Where do you stand on cash bail? If you are against cash bail, do you believe it is proper for the justice system in Philadelphia to hold people in custody before trial with no ability to pay bail and wait for trial on the street?
Carlos: I believe the current cash bail system is an abject failure. Under the current District Attorney, too many people who pose no threat to the community are incarcerated simply because they cannot afford their bail. At the same time, it allows people intent on inflicting harm on marginalized communities to walk the streets freely. I would seek to ensure no cash bail for non-violent, low-level offenders while utilizing it for violent offenders who threaten society. It is essential to treat each individual on a case-by-case basis as the circumstances, and severity of the alleged crime(s), as well as the record of the alleged perpetrator(s), vary, making a one-size-fits-all policy ineffective and harmful.
Aleida: Where do you stand on cash bail? If you are against cash bail, do you believe it is proper for the justice system in Philadelphia to hold people in custody before trial with no ability to pay bail?
Carlos: I believe the current cash bail system is an abject failure. Under the current District Attorney, too many people who pose no threat to the community are incarcerated simply because they cannot afford their bail. At the same time, it allows people intent on inflicting harm on marginalized communities to walk the streets freely. I would seek to ensure the opposite. There is no cash bail for non-violent, low-level offenders while utilizing it for violent offenders who pose a serious threat to society. It is essential to treat each individual on a case-by-case basis as the circumstances and severity of the alleged crime(s), as well as the record of the alleged perpetrator(s), vary, making a one-size-fits-all policy ineffective and harmful.
Aleida: A significant driver in the increased jail population is probation detainers — people held in custody and unable to make bail because of an actual or potential probation violation. What will you do to change this policy?
Carlos: My office would ensure that detention and incarceration are used only when the person has committed violent felonies or poses a threat to the community. I believe the current system is an abject failure. Under the current District Attorney, the bail system keeps too many people who pose no threat to the community incarcerated simply because they cannot afford their bail. At the same time, it allows people intent on inflicting harm on marginalized communities to walk the streets freely.
Aleida: What are concrete steps that your office will take to address systemic racism in law enforcement?
Carlos: As DA, I would diversify the District Attorney’s office to make it more reflective of Philadelphia, and I would advocate for a similar approach in other law enforcement agencies. I would also work with the police department to enhance officer training. I believe it is essential to include prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and community leaders in officer training, from basic training to continuing education.
Aleida: What is your position concerning trying juveniles in adult court? Do you have any firm policies you can state to us about direct file juveniles?
Carlos: I would only certify a juvenile as an adult in the most extreme cases of murder, assault with a firearm, or rape. Defense counsel has a right to file a motion to have his client decertified as an adult. I believe we desperately need a DA who knows how to strike this balance, who cares less about an ideological mission and more about the mission to save lives and livelihoods.
Aleida: Any final words?
Carlos: I believe I can better reduce harm to our communities, and that is why I am running for District Attorney. I hope you will consider supporting me. Thank you for the time.