In red and blue states alike, recent victories by candidates promising progressive changes to the criminal justice system have revealed the extent to which the cause has started to gain traction throughout the country. With would-be reformers newly elected to office as prosecutors, legislators, and even governor in November, there is potential for a wave of new statewide reforms that could change the course away from mass incarceration.
In Virginia, voters took advantage of an opportunity to reshape the criminal justice system by electing progressive Democrats to lead as commonwealth’s attorneys for populous counties in Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun. Notably, Daniel Nichanian wrote in The Appeal’s political report that Virginia’s victories could change the divisive rhetoric that opponents to reform have driven. Opponents have attacked reform-minded prosecutors as products of larger cities, out of sync with the rest of the state. And with six legislative seats flipped to blue, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam promised to take advantageof the Democrats’ first full control of state government since 1994, including reforming the state’s criminal justice policies. State leaders have the potential to decriminalize marijuana, limit disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated people, and lessen mandatory minimum sentences.
The Justice Collaborative’s Vaidya Gullapalli says that a key issue that should be pursued by legislators should be gun reform measures which avoid the same failed patterns of criminalization laid out by the war on drugs.
“The statewide implications of a wave of decarceral prosecutors winning is one of the most striking things we saw,” Nichanian said in an interview. “The idea that there would be an alternative law enforcement voice to say that anti-reform politics is not necessary, that there’s other ways of approaching the criminal justice system that would change the politics of mass incarceration, it would give new allies to activists who have long been pushing the issues.”
It took a few days after election day for results of the San Francisco district attorney’s race to come through, but former public defender Chesa Boudin won in a closely watched race against Suzy Loftus—despite her recent appointment by the mayor, which critics said could have given her an incumbent advantage. Boudin ran on a platform to end mass incarceration by measures like implementing alternatives to confinement, ending money bail, and closing jails and juvenile detention facilities in favor of mental health care and diversion programs.
Chesa Boudin found out he won while visiting his father in prison over the weekend.
Boudin’s background as a public defender and status as an underdog and personal story in the race captured the attention of voters—both Boudin’s parents were radical leftists, incarcerated when he was a child in connection with an armed robbery. He found out he won while visiting his father in prison over the weekend.
Another notable victory for reform came from Kentucky, where Democrat Andy Beshear unseated pro-Trump Republican governor Matt Bevin. Kentucky, like Virginia, imposes a lifetime voting ban on people with felony convictions unless or until the rights are restored by the governor. Beshear ran on a promise to automatically restore the voting rights to nearly 140,000 people convicted with felonies.
The elevation of these would-be reformers to public office comes in the midst of an increasingly successful nationwide push for changes to the criminal justice system: Over the last year, state legislatures across the country have passed at least 75 laws that advance the goals of criminal justice reform, according to American Civil Liberties Union National Political Director Udi Ofer.
On the ground, that means 1,400 people in Oklahoma saw their felony drug possession convictions downgraded to misdemeanors. In Colorado, people charged with low-level crimes like sleeping at a park past curfew will no longer be jailed subject to their ability to post bail. Louisiana, the world’s incarceration capital, will no longer take first-time, nonviolent offenses into consideration under habitual offender sentencing enhancements. Connecticut passed the nation’s first law requiring public transparency for prosecutorial decisions about charges, diversion programs, bail requests, plea deals, and sentencing recommendations.
Ofer says when it comes to district attorney elections, 2019 will prove to be another year where reform-minded candidates were embraced.
“The movement to end mass incarceration has been growing for the past several years, the movement was vibrant before reform prosecutors began to be elected and the movement is even more vibrant today,” Ofer said.
This election’s wave of reform-minded prosecutors will build on the allies advocates have had in their growing list of reform-minded prosecutors. Nichanian noted that prosecutors with bold platforms have often been those pushing the reform agenda statewide.
In the same way that previously elected progressive prosecutors have formed alliances to call for reform measures from state legislatures—such as “raise the age” legislation in Massachusetts, Steve Descano, a member of the Fairfax County Commonwealth in Virginia, said he vows to put together a coalition that would act as a counterpoint to the advocacy of the state’s prosecutor association. Parisa Dehgani-Tafti, a former public defender who just won in Arlington County, and Jim Hingeley, who won in Albemarle County, have expressed similar goals, according to Nichanian.
That’s a much different form of advocacy than is traditionally seen from prosecutors or their statewide associations, who are more often the major opponents to reform legislation. In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner withdrew himself from the state’s prosecutor organization, calling the advocacy group “the voice of the past.”
“It’s not a moment, it’s a movement,” was the response from Krasner to Hingeley’s victory in Albemarle County over Republican incumbent Robert Tracci. During his campaign, Hingeley called for an end to family separation through incarceration, calling for the same level of outraged sparked by Trump’s immigration policies.
“We’re not used to that, on voting rights, marijuana or the death penalty, they’re proposing very bold reforms…it’s giving new allies to activists who have long been pushing the issues,” Nichanian said.
Alex Arriaga is a reporter based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @alexarriaga__.
Read more of Prism’s “Local Politics of Criminal Justice” series here, and follow us on Twitter @ourprisms and on Facebook for more reporting on criminal justice and grassroots work toward reform. Prism is a nonprofit affiliate of Daily Kos. Our mission is to make visible the people, places and issues currently underrepresented in our democracy. By amplifying the voices and leadership of people closest to the problems, Prism tells the stories no one else is telling.