For decades, two things have been true about criminal justice in Jefferson County, Alabama: The district attorneys have been white men, and many people have been sentenced to death. Lynneice Washington is about to change that, reports Vice. Washington, a judge in a Birmingham suburb, defeated the incumbent DA, Republican Bill Veitch, last month. Her victory was certified last week after a recount showed she won by 299 votes. Washington will be the first black woman serving as a DA in Alabama’s history.
She will join a very small club nationwide: Ninety-five percent of elected prosecutors are white and just 1 percent are women of color, says the Respective Democracy Campaign. Washington also marks a departure from her predecessors in that she is personally opposed to the death penalty, and even campaigned on reining it in. Since 2010, Jefferson County has sentenced five people to death—more than 99.5 percent of U.S. counties in the nation, says Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project. All five are black. While Washington has vowed to uphold the law, the way capital punishment works is “unfair and arbitrary and unbalanced,” she said. “We need to face that, and until we face it, things are going to get worse.” Among other initiatives, she plans to beef up the convictions integrity unit that probes possible wrongful convictions, start a citizen-police advisory board, and divert low-level offenders from prison by creating alternatives to incarceration. The other newly elected DA in Jefferson County, which is divided into two judicial districts, Charles Todd Henderson, has also said he opposes the death penalty and wants to reform how it is used.