When it comes to criminal justice reform, the caveat that “all politics is local” could not be more accurate. The broad discretion employed by police, prosecutors and judges ensures that similar cases can have starkly different outcomes depending on where a crime occurs.
Although Donald Trump’s victory, following a campaign laced with “tough on crime” rhetoric, is seen by some reformers as a blow to chances for meaningful change in federal policies, reformers can take some comfort from the results of some local races for Congress and District Attorney.
A marquee example was last night’s Senate win of Kamala Devi Harris.
Harris, California’s Democratic Attorney General, beat her Republican opponent Loretta Sanchez to become the first Indian-American to serve in the US Senate. Harris—who replaces the retiring Barbara Boxer —is vocally progressive on criminal justice issues and promises to promote “smart, innovative and effective” solutions to fighting crime.
She’s an outspoken proponent of community policing and transparency, with a track record for favoring criminal justice policies that reduce racial disparities and mass incarceration. In 2013 she created a Division of Recidivism Reduction and Re-Entry in California that funneled more money into crime prevention and reentry programs.
Harris’s presence in the Senate will help bolster bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts of colleagues like Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Corey Booker (D-N.J.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky) — which face a precarious future under a Trump administration.
That may reflect a trend that began last year, when voters delivered a message that zero-tolerance, lock-em-up approaches to low-impact crime that disproportionately impact minorities are becoming less and less palatable. Several prominent, tough-on-crime prosecutors have lost their seats to more progressive opponents, including Angela Corey, in Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit, who earned a reputation as one of the “deadliest” and “cruelest” elected prosecutors in America.
Corey lost her primary bid in August and will be replaced by Melissa Nelson—a conservative civil attorney with a mixed record on reform.
That trend continued on election night.
The New Prosecutors
Fueled by the efforts of progressive businessman George Soros and groups like Color of Change, tough-on-crime incumbents in several closely watched District Attorney races lost their seats to reform-minded challengers.
In Harris County, Texas, challenger Kim Ogg, a Democrat, defeated incumbent Republican Devon Anderson—who has been criticized for her overzealous prosecutorial efforts (which included jailing a rape victim to secure her testimony). Ogg received strong support from the Black Lives Matter movement and has promised not to prosecute low-level marijuana cases.
In Hillsborough County, Fla.—which encompasses Tampa—long-time state’s attorney Mark Ober lost his seat to former prosecutor Andrew Warren. Ober, a Republican, is a staunch critic of marijuana reform and has brought notoriety to his jurisdiction for the high percentage of juveniles tried as adults in Hillsborough County. The Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project named Ober’s jurisdiction as one of 16 outlier counties where the death penalty is disproportionately used.
Meanwhile African-American candidates for District Attorney swept to victory or ran unopposed in Chicago, Ill., St. Louis, Mo., Orlando, Fla., and Henry County, Ga., bringing more minority representation to a field that is overwhelmingly dominated by white men.
According to The New York Times, four-fifths of the approximately 2,400 elected prosecutors in America are white, and many view this lack of diversity as a contributing factor to racial inequities in the criminal justice system.
Commenting on Tuesday’s results, Daniel Medwed—a law professor at Northeastern University, and a member of the Fair Punishment Project Advisory Council—predicted that the era of tough-on-crime rhetoric is coming to a close:
“Voters realize that overzealous prosecutors have abused their power for too long,” Medwed said. “Voters are ready for a state’s attorney who will focus on long-term solutions, rather than short-sighted policies that make them sound tough, but don’t result in equitable or sustainable results.
“This could be a sea change and might mean that prosecutors might become more accountable to the public.”
Christopher Moraff is a contributor to The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.