As the Trump administration prepares to roll back the budget and agenda of the Obama Justice Department, a handful of newly-elected local prosecutors are setting off in a different direction.
As our Maurice Chammah reported in November, an unusual number of incumbent district attorneys faced challenges in this year’s election. Many of them lost to professed reformers, indicating that voters are paying closer attention to these down-ballot races — thanks in part to the Black Lives Matter movement and an influx of donations from liberal billionaire George Soros.
Now, the incoming DA’s, who campaigned on less-punitive sentences, marijuana decriminalization, opposition to the death penalty, and charging fewer juveniles as adults, are putting some initial reforms into action.
Since criminal justice happens mostly in states and counties, these policy shifts could have greater impact than anything President Trump does in Washington.
Here’s an update:Chicago
In one of last year’s most closely-watched races, Kim Foxx replaced controversial incumbent Anita Alvarez as Cook County state’s attorney, vowing to reform the office from top to bottom.
On Dec. 12, one month after being elected, Foxx took a first small step toward that promise — ordering her prosecutors to stop charging low-level shoplifting as a felony. Under the new rule, the crime will now be considered a misdemeanor unless the stolen goods are worth more than $1,000 or the alleged perpetrator has 10 prior felony convictions. (Alvarez had prosecuted these offenses as a felony if the person had just one prior felony on his or her record.)
Between 2010 and 2012, there were 80,089 retail theft arrests in Illinois, and nationally, about 80 percent of such thefts involve items worth less than $300, according to the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, an independent state agency. That means this change will keep a large number of nonviolent offenders out of Chicago's jail.
Meanwhile, Foxx is creating a gun-crimes prosecution unit to focus on the city’s epidemic of shootings, and has hired an “ethics” officer and a “diversity” officer.Houston
In Harris County, Texas, incomer Kim Ogg campaigned on a left-leaning platform of support for Black Lives Matter and scaling back prosecution of marijuana possession. Days after taking office, she began reorganizing her staff to meet those goals.
First, she fired nearly 40 prosecutors and replaced them with experienced defense attorneys — a rare change of perspective for a prosecutor's office — in key positions, including chief of staff and trial chief.
Then she tapped a former defense attorney and judge to head a brand new "Office of Professional Integrity," which Ogg says will hold prosecutors to ethical guidelines on issues such as when to hand over evidence to the defense and how.
"There are few jobs where judgment is more important than it is as a prosecutor," Ogg said in her announcement.
Ogg also announced that she will keep all misdemeanor marijuana possession defendants out of jail.Austin, Texas
In nearby Travis County, Texas, newly-elected district attorney Margaret Moore is undertaking a re-staffing effort of her own. She recently informed 27 of the office’s existing prosecutors that their services were no longer needed, and replaced them with lawyers known for having a good reputation in the defense community.
The move, according to the Austin American-Statesman, was “the most sweeping personnel shift at the DA’s office in decades.”Denver
Newly-elected Denver district attorney Beth McCann, who ran on a promise to restore trust between police and people of color, has said her office will no longer seek the death penalty.
In a Jan. 9 interview with the city’s NBC affiliate, she said the office would not be pursuing executions, because “I don’t think the state should be in the business of killing people.”
Colorado has executed only one person since 1976 and has only three people currently on death row, but McCann's pledge, which aligns with what she promised on the campaign trail, means that Denver will no longer be one of the few districts in the state that still pursues capital punishment.Jacksonville, Fla.
In November, Melissa Nelson officially replaced incumbent Jacksonville state attorney Angela Corey, who was nationally known for her zealous pursuit of the death penalty.
Nelson, a Republican, has created a panel of lawyers within the office to evaluate all death penalty cases, in part to make sure that no mitigating evidence gets neglected.
Meanwhile, she is forming a new “conviction integrity unit,” a team of prosecutors whose job it is to identify wrongful convictions and reverse them. So far, she has met with both the Jacksonville public defender and the national Innocence Project to get their recommendations.
It would be the first Florida prosecutor’s office with a conviction review unit.