The fateful year of 2020 is coming to an end. It was a year that saw the worse pandemic in the nation’s history devastate the country and an ongoing recession ruin many people’s lives. It was a year that saw, if only during the three-month period of May 26th (the day George Floyd was killed) and August 22nd, 10,600 demonstrations across the country of which approximately 5 percent (570 events) – according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) project — involved violence. The New York Times estimated that between 15 million and 26 million people participated at some point in the demonstrations making the protests the largest in U.S. history.
Covid-19, the recession and the mass insurgency led by the Black Lives Matter movement contributed to Donald Trump’s failed bid for reelection. But they also contributed to the election of more “progressive” District Attorneys calling for criminal justice reform in cities and counties across the country.
Sadly, much of the debate was reduced to a choice between two ideological-laced slogans — “law and order” and “defund the police.”
Nevertheless, “progressive” DAs were elected throughout the country, including in Los Angeles County (CA), San Joaquin County (CA), Orange-Osceola (Orlando, FL), Columbus (OH), Austin (TX), Orlando (FL), Oakland Country (MI), Honolulu (HI), Lorain County (OH), Columbus (OH), Oakland County (MI) as well as Jefferson, Larimer and Aurora Counties (CO). These elections followed a growing wave of “progressive” DAs who won in the period of 2016 to 2019.
U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr condemned the wave of reformist prosecutors, criticizing them for “undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook, and refusing to enforce the law.” In a speech at the National Convention of the Fraternal Order of Police, he called progressive prosecutors who “style themselves social justice reformers, and spend their time undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook and refusing to enforce the laws.”
For most voters, however, the simplistic slogans did not address the complexity of the DA elections. A June 2020 poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found the 95 percent of those polled reported that criminal justice reform was necessary. It also found that 29 percent believe in a complete overhaul; 40 percent said there should be major changes; 25 percent said there should be minor changes; and only 5 percent said no changes are needed.
The election of George Gascón in Los Angeles was probably the most significant of the nation-wide insurgency. He stood as an anti-death penalty, pro-reform alternative to incumbent Jackie Lacey. “The murder of George Floyd this summer was a horrific reminder that too often our profession has failed to hold its own to the same standards we impose on the communities that we are sworn to protect and to serve,” he said. “It galvanized a generation to stand up and speak out against a system that the public largely views as a two-tiered system: one for police officers and prosecutors, and one for everyone else.” Gascón called for ending the death penalty, stopping most cash bail for misdemeanor nonserious or nonviolent felony offenses and prioritizing cases for resentencing inmates who are serving excessive prison terms.
California voters also elected Tori Verber Salazar, a “progressive” Republican, as the San Joaquin County District Attorney. She declared her top priorities to include eliminating racial bias in the criminal justice system and making police officers more accountable for their actions.
A summary overview of some of the other recent DA elections sketch out just how extensive is the growing movement.
In Colorado, three critical victories stand out.
First, Alexis King is the first Democrat to be elected district attorney in the First Judicial District (Jefferson and Gilpin Counties) since 2000.
Second, Gordon McLaughlin won the race in the Eighth Judicial District (Larimer and Jackson Counties) and became the first Democrat to hold the position since the 1970s. “Folks want this community to be safe, but they also want other options for lower-level crime, like those connected to substance use and mental health,” he said.
Third, Brian Mason, a Democrat who served as a prosecutor in the DA’s office for 13 years and previously in the Clinton administration, won in Aurora (17th Judicial District). He’s called for elimination of the school-to-prison pipeline, alternative programs to incarceration and expansion of the Diversion Program for first time non-violent offenders.
In Florida, criminal-justice reformer Monique Worrell beat “law and order” candidate Jose Torroella in the race for Orange-Osceola, the Nineth Judicial District (i.e., Orlando) state attorney. Worrell said voters had overwhelmingly demanded “reform and a proven leader who will make our community safer, stand with victims and restore trust in the rule of law.” She vowed to end jail time for minor drug offenses and to prosecute police officers not only for murder, but assault.
In Hawaii, Steve Alm, a former prosecutor, U.S. attorney and retired judge, was elected Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney. He previously helped start the “Weed and Seed Program” to reduce crime in the Chinatown and Kalihi-Palama areas. He has called for reducing incarceration rates through increased probation.
In Illinois, Kim Foxx was reelected the Cook County (i.e., Chicago) State’s Attorney. She first was elected in 2016. Chicago’s The Chicago Tribune reports that during her first three years as the county’s top prosecutor, her office dropped all charges against 29.9 percent of felony defendants. She said her office has dismissed cases against low-level, nonviolent offenders so prosecutors can concentrate on crimes of violence.
In Ohio, there were two critical DA elections.
First, in Columbus, Judge Gary Tyack defeated Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien. “I want to have an ongoing process of hiring more people of color, frankly more women,” Tyack says. “Other folks who can make the office more balanced, so that when someone deals with the office, they see somebody that looks like them. And not just another white male.” In addition, he called for the establishment of an effective Civilian Review Board to consider police misconduct, to scrutinize police shootings and – given Columbus as the state capital, to re-establish a corruption unit focused on state lawmakers.
Second, J. D. Tomlinson beat his Republican opponent for Lorain County prosecutor – this in a state that Trump won the popular vote. Tomlinson is progressive newcomer, a veteran criminal defense attorney who said he felt it was important to discuss matters including the expungement of criminal records and community policing.
In Michigan, there were two critical elections.
In Oakland Country (MI), north of Detroit, Karen McDonald won on a platform of eliminating cash bail and avoiding jail time for nonviolent offenders.
However, in Wayne County (i.e., Detroit), the incumbent Prosecutor Kym Worthy defeated Victoria Burton-Harris, a progressive who was backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders.
In Texas, José Garza, a Democrat, was elected Travis County (i.e., Austin) District Attorney. He is a former federal public defender and immigrant rights activist at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid and was executive director of the Workers Defense Project. Garza promised to address “the gross racial disparities in our criminal justice system.” He says criminalizing low-level drug use and prosecuting some non-violent offenses doesn’t make communities safer and they won’t be his priority. “We also know that those kind of offenses are one of the greatest drivers of racial disparities in our criminal justice system,” said Garza. “So we have made clear that when we take office we will end the prosecution of low-level drug offenses.”
These recent victories in DA elections follow an earlier series of victories. In St Louis (MO), Kimberly Gardner won in 2016 as City Circuit Attorney (MS) and was re-elected in 2020. She proposed the elimination of most bail, drop prison enhancements for gangs and guns, and wants his office to investigate all police.
In Florida, Aramis Ayala was elected in 2016 as the State Attorney for the Ninth Judicial Circuit for Orange and Osceola Counties; she served one term.
In Contra Costa County (CA), Diana Becton, a former trial judge, was elected the first African American DA in 2017.
In Philadelphia (PA), Larry Krasner was elected DA in 2017 and has sought to decrease recidivism, encourage employment and increase public safety. He is committed to ending bail payments for low-level offenders, reducing supervision for parolees and seeking more lenient sentences for certain crimes.
In Suffolk County (MA) that covers the municipalities of Boston, Chelsea, Revere and Winthrop, Rachael Rollins was elected the DA in 2018.
In Durham County (NC), Satana Deberry was elected in 2018 and ran opposing over-policing of Black and Brown people, and promising sweeping reform.
In Virginia, “progressives” won in three key elections in 2019.
In Fairfax Country, Steve Descano was elected DA, stating, “This is a great opportunity to band together with other reform-minded prosecutors to really move criminal justice reform, not only in our jurisdiction but around the state.
In Arlington County and Falls Church City, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, the legal director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and a former public defender, won.
In Albemarle County, a longtime public defender, Jim Hingeley, was elected DA, proclaiming, “Family separation is not just an ICE policy.”
In San Francisco, Chesa Boudin was elected in November 2019, committed to combating racial disparities and mass incarceration.
This new crop of District Attorneys was elected during a critical moment in U.S. history. Two of the same forces that led to Trump defeat – Covid-19 pandemic and the deepening recession – will test local law enforcement. Reported increased incidents of street crime, interpersonal violence and ongoing killings of peoples of color by local police only add to the challenges the new DAs face. One can well anticipate this rise if no drastic federal action is not taken to offset job loss, end of unemployment support and growing home evictions. The same conservatives who promoted the “law and order” regime that helped precipitate the current crisis will likely only ratchet up their war cry if social dislocation continues. The new DAs face a challenging period.