Editor’s Note: This article, distributed by The Associated Press, was originally published on The Conversation’s website. The Talk is an independent, non-profit source of news, analysis, and commentary from academic experts.
From Caren Morrison, Georgia State University
Despite the widespread political polarization in the United States, the 2020 elections confirmed a clear movement in both red and blue America: the gains of reform-minded prosecutors.
The candidates defeated traditional law and order prosecutors across the country on progressive platforms that include ending mass detention and tackling police misconduct.
After decades of re-election of the incumbent prosecutors for their high conviction rates or the long prison terms they had imposed, advocates for criminal justice reform invaded their territory a few years ago. They did this mainly by promoting local races and funding progressive challengers.
Birth of a movement
During her 2016 tenure for the Cook County, Illinois District Attorney’s Office, Kim Foxx vowed to be more accountable to police shootings and reduce prosecutions for nonviolent crimes.
She won and became the first black woman to serve as a Chicago prosecutor. It was also the first high-profile sign that the prosecution’s progressive approach is working.
Their victory was followed by Larry Krasner’s election as Philadelphia District Attorney in 2017. Krasner, a former civil rights attorney, had never followed a case as he ran for office – a move the city police union chief described as “hilarious”.
However, Krasner’s campaign platform, which dealt with mass detention and police misconduct, responded to a city with the highest incarceration rate among major US cities, nearly seven in 1,000 citizens. Krasner won with 75% of the vote.
As a professor of criminal proceedings and a former federal prosecutor, I have observed that the desire for reforms has only grown since then.
Progressive candidates have pledged to transform a criminal justice system that has bloated prisons and disproportionately targeted black people.
The protests against Black Lives Matter have also drawn attention to how prosecutors make decisions – who to pursue and how severe they are, especially in police brutality cases.
Movement gains steam
Despite criticism of her first term – including her decision to drop actor Jussie Smollett’s charges of falsifying a hate crime – Foxx won re-election on November 3 by 14 points. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, this was a sign that Cook County “is unwilling to reverse criminal justice reform.”
This feeling reverberates across the country.
In Orlando, the criminal justice reformer Monique Worrell defeated an “independent conservative” of law and order in the race for the prosecutor.
In Detroit, Karen McDonald won her race for Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office by pledging “common sense reform of the criminal justice system that uses treatment courts and distraction programs, eliminates racial differences and creates a fair system for all.”
And in Colorado, Democratic prosecutors flipped two major counties in Colorado that Republicans had held for decades.
“I think people are starting to understand,” Why don’t I know who my prosecutor is? “Said Gordon McLaughlin, the new District Attorney for Colorado’s Eighth Judicial District who advocated alternatives to incarcerating nonviolent offenders.” It got the criminal justice system into the main talking point.
A major issue on the minds of voters is how prosecutors deal with police violence.
In Los Angeles, George Gascón, a former police officer, ousted Jackie Lacey. Lacey has been the target of continued criticism from BLM activists who protested outside her office every Wednesday for three years.
They complained that Lacey prosecuted only one of the 600 or so shootings of officers during her eight-year tenure. They added that Lacey, a black woman, sent 22 people of color to death row.
Gascón vowed to hold the police accountable for shootings by officials. During the campaign, he promised to reopen high profile cases, including two where people were shot for not following an official’s instructions.
Lots and bail
Progressive prosecutors are probably the most influential in distracting people from the criminal justice system.
Many were motivated by what they see as “criminalizing poverty” – a phenomenon in which the poor keep criminal records for minor offenses because they cannot afford bail or effective legal assistance.
Alonzo Payne, the new District Attorney for San Luis Valley, Colorado, was outraged that poor people were being forced to stay in prison because they couldn’t afford to bail them.
“I decided to bring human compassion to the attorney’s office,” he told the Denver Post.
Reforming the cash bail system and reducing mass incarceration is a goal shared by all newly elected prosecutors this election cycle, including Jose Garza, an immigration lawyer in Austin, Texas.
It seems that progressive policies persist in some of the country’s largest cities, but reformers have not been successful everywhere.
Candidates Zack Thomas from Johnson County, Kansas, and Julie Gunnigle from Maricopa County, Arizona lost their races. And incumbents resisted reformist challengers in Cincinnati, Ohio and Charleston, South Carolina.
Even so, progressive prosecutors are increasingly winning races – and staying in power – by making the criminal justice system fairer.
Worrell in Orlando is a good example. She headed the Prosecutor’s Conviction Integrity Unit and investigated claims of innocence by convicted defendants.
Their message of reform found much more resonance with voters than the message of their opponent Jose Torroella, who had pledged to be “more old-fashioned” and “stricter”. Worrell won the race with almost 66% of the vote.
Caren Morrison is an Associate Professor of Law at Georgia State University.
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