Law-and-order may have won the White House on Tuesday, but in a series of closely-watched district attorney races around the country, voters ushered in candidates who argued for less incarceration and punitive sentences.
In Tampa, Fla., seat of Hillsborough County, Democratic challenger Andrew Warren beat incumbent Republican Mark Ober after promising to charge fewer juveniles in adult courts, seek the death penalty less often, and establish a unit to uncover wrongful convictions. In Houston, the seat of Harris County, Democrat Kim Ogg unseated incumbent Republican Devon Anderson after enlisting the support of the Black Lives Matter movement and promising to no longer prosecute misdemeanor cases of marijuana possession. (Anderson also spent much of the campaign defending her decision to jail a rape victim to ensure her testimony.)
And in Denver, Helen Morgan, a former deputy district attorney running as an independent, lost to Beth McCann, a Democratic state representative whose campaign website promises to “address disproportionate incarceration of people of color” and “build trust between law enforcement and our communities.”
Reform advocates on the left and right saw the competitive races as proof that the politics of criminal justice are in flux. District attorneys do not often have campaign battles on their hands, but efforts to reduce prison populations and punishments for drug crimes have been stalled in Congress — and are unlikely to get far with Republicans about to wrest control of Washington. So advocates this year focused on the local level, where most decisions about charging are made.
“People are scrutinizing their local criminal justice systems, and people are realizing how much power state attorneys have, and they are seeing elections as a way to change those results,” Deborrah Brodsky, director of the Project on Accountable Justice at Florida State University, told The Marshall Project.
In addition to the small number of close races on Tuesday, several African-American prosecutors sailed to victory after mounting upsets in party primaries earlier this year, including Kim Foxx in Chicago, Ill., Kimberly Gardner in St. Louis, Mo., Aramis Ayala in Orlando, Fla., and Darius Pattillo in the suburbs of Atlanta, Ga. Many of these challengers received support from liberal billionaire George Soros, who joined with racial justice groups in an effort to increase diversity among the nearly 2,500 prosecutors who are elected to office, four out of five of whom are white men. In Chicago, Foxx targeted incumbent Anita Alvarez for being too slow to indict police officer Jason Van Dyke for the 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald.
Tuesday was not a clean sweep for candidates touting reform: Colorado Democrat Jake Lilly — whose campaign was supported by ads purchased by a Soros-linked political action committee — lost to incumbent Republican Pete Weir in Jefferson and Gilpin counties, outside Denver, though Weir himself has promoted courts to divert people with drug addiction and mental illness from jail time.
Now begins the test of whether these prosecutors can deliver on their campaign promises, which include scrutiny of racial disparities, reduced use of the death penalty, and an emphasis on rehabilitation and diversion for those charged with low-level crimes. It can be difficult to grade such officials, since day-to-day data on charging decisions and convictions is not always available. But David Sklansky, a Stanford law professor, is beginning to develop metrics that people can use to judge their elected district attorney, including biases of race, gender, and ethnicity in charging decisions. “There are such conflicting expectations,” Sklansky said. “What you mean by a ‘good prosecutor’s office’ can mean so many different things.”