Three weeks ago, Election Day ushered in significant changes in the country’s political landscape. With Donald Trump’s election as our nation’s next president, some wonder if his throwback “law and order” campaign will culminate in a shift towards greater power and impunity for law enforcement and more punitive charging and sentencing practices. While media outlets covering criminal justice developments have appropriately explored prospective changes in federal government policy, many have also emphasized how local changes matter. Indeed, in the criminal justice context, some argue that local politics matter more than state or federal elections. Here, we take a look at the results of several prosecutorial elections and what they may mean going forward.
Even before the November elections rolled around, several high-profile incumbent prosecutors lost their bids for re-election at the primary stage. Kim Foxx beat Anita Alvarez in Cook County, Illinois, Melissa Nelson trounced the notorious Angela Corey in the 4th Judicial District of Florida, and Timothy McGinty lost his role to challenger Michael O’Malley in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. Jordan Smith at The Intercept pointed out in October that these results reflect something bigger happening around the country:
These elections are part of a small but growing trend in district attorney races across the country in which voters are eschewing the traditional tough-on-crime narrative that has dominated prosecutor elections for decades in favor of more reform-minded candidates whose platforms include holding police more accountable and taking more seriously cases of wrongful conviction.
That trend continued into November. In Harris County, Texas, challenger Kim Ogg unseated incumbent Devon Anderson. Ogg had campaigned on reform-centered statements like: “We’re going to have a system with fair bail; we’re going to have a system that doesn’t oppress the poor . . . .” In Hillsborough County, Florida, four-term incumbent Mark Ober lost to upstart Andrew Warren. During the campaign, Warren said Ober’s tenure was plagued by “persistent problems of overzealous prosecutors, ineffective defense lawyers, and racial bias.” In Nueces County, Texas, Mark Gonzalez, a defense attorney with the phrase “Not Guilty” tattooed on his body, prevailed. Perhaps most surprisingly, incumbent Brandon Falls lost the Jefferson County, Alabama district attorney race to Charles Todd Henderson, a candidate who wants to end the mass incarceration of drug users and personally opposes the death penalty. Other reform-oriented candidates will take oaths of office in Denver, St. Louis, Orlando and Santa Fe. Not only is the new wave of elected prosecutors more attuned to concerns with fairness and restraint, but they also represent a more racially diverse contingent than the individuals they will replace.
At the Nation, Robert Smith and Whitney Tymas have helped put local prosecutorial elections in context: “These victories represent tangible progress in the ongoing struggle among a dedicated band of progressive advocates in the fight for a more humane and sensible justice system, one that strives to keep us safe while simultaneously treating people fairly and conserving taxpayer dollars.” Curbing misconduct is not necessarily itself a core tenet for these reform candidates, but it certainly facilitates the accountability and fairness so central to these election outcomes. As voters follow the work of this new group of reform-oriented prosecutors in the coming months and years, they ought to track adherence to professional rules of ethics and conduct in addition to prosecutorial restraint and sound judgment.