Are Americans Finally Turning Away From ‘Tough-on-Crime’ Era?

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John Creuzot

Former Judge John Creuzot won election as Dallas County prosecutor on a platform of ending mass incarceration. Photo from KERA News

Democrat John Creuzot, who defeated Republican incumbent Faith Johnson in the Dallas County District Attorney’s race last week,  had a campaign website that declared in big, bold letters, “It’s time to END Mass Incarceration.”

Republican Locke Thompson ran a successful campaign in Cole County, Missouri, with a campaign platform that included eliminating cash bail for low-level misdemeanors.

The victories chalked up by Creuzot and Thompson underlined a fact that has largely been overlooked in postmortems of this month’s midterms: the growing support of voters for genuine change in the criminal justice system regardless of their party affiliations—-and there is perhaps no clearer bellwether for how far voters think the needle should move on criminal justice reform than how they vote for local prosecutors.

While legislators run on a variety of issues, we are left with clear choices on a single subject in district attorney races: How will they handle the prosecution of crime?

In addition to the passage of pro-reform ballot initiatives and the election of pro-reform candidates to national offices, the outcome of some local district attorneys’ races last week represented encouraging signs for justice reform advocates.

“Prosecutors are the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system,” says Udi Ofer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Campaign for Smart Justice, which worked to inform voters about where candidates stood on criminal justice reform.

He said that while gubernatorial candidates with platforms to end or reduce mass incarceration won 78 percent of the races and 71 percent of federal races, the district attorney results on Nov. 6 also continued to show a steady drumbeat toward reform in even the reddest parts of the country.

Ofer added that “95 percent of elected prosecutors are white men in the United States, but the prosecutors elected on Election Day in Dallas, Birmingham, Boston and St. Louis, were all black.”

In Dallas, Creuzot’s victory over Johnson, the county’s first female African-American DA, lent itself to a more nuanced interpretation.

During the campaign, Johnson touted her “tough on crime” stance, but, according to The New York Times, she also oversaw a program in which people with an arrest but no conviction could have their records wiped. She promised not to seek cash bail for those arrested with small amounts of marijuana.

Creuzot, however, appeared willing to go a step further, defining drugs more as a “public health problem” and pledging to cut incarceration by 15 percent to 20 percent by the end of his first term.

While there was a  “Blue Wave” in the Texas courts on Election Day, giving Democrats majorities on seven of the state’s 14 appeals courts compared with only three before, Ofer said the outcome of the Creuzot-Johnson faceoff was the most exciting in the nation.

“In the Dallas DA race, there was both a very contested primary and a very contested general election, and the candidate who ran on a platform of reducing incarceration by 15-20 percent won,” he said. “That’s a big deal,”

Added Ofer: “Even the Republican candidate who had not taken a criminal justice reform platform embraced it. It became a referendum on which candidate is better on criminal justice reform.”

In Jefferson County, Ala., pro-reform challenger Danny Carr become the district attorney after committing his office to stop jailing people for low-level marijuana offenses. Ofer said his stance was linked to a report showing that black people in Alabama were four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Locke Thompson

Locke Thompson, elected DA in Cole County, Mo..

Lucy Lang, executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that with far-right libertarian groups and reformers getting on the same page, politics is playing a smaller role in determining voters’ criminal justice stances.

Measures such as eliminating cash bail or changing marijuana policy, are not “going to drastically affect the problems of mass incarceration,” she told The Crime Report, but these kinds of changes are “starting to reflect the fact that people think differently about a prosecutor’s role.”

Ofer said the polling ahead of the Nov. 6 election indicated that voters were hungry for reform.

An ACLU poll, for example, found 78 percent of likely voters, including 71 percent of Republicans, were more likely to support a candidate who believes in criminal justice reform; 59 percent of likely voters said they wanted candidates who would reduce jail and prison populations; and 75 percent of voters said they were more likely to support candidates who pledged to reduce the criminal justice system’s racial disparities.

The results, he said, build on the gradual sea change that had already begun.

“This is a continuation, so it’s not a blip, it’s yet another milestone in the movement to holding prosecutors accountable for fueling mass incarceration in America,” he said.

Kate Pastor is a freelance journalist based in New York City. Readers’  comments are welcome.

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