If you’ve voted before, you won’t be surprised to see a number of slates empty or with only one candidate running for sheriff, public attorney, or judicial roles. This dearth of candidates has helped fuel our mass incarceration problem. Fortunately, strong progressive candidates are running to serve in these roles this fall. Learn why this matters.
This series focuses on progressive district attorneys, judges, and sheriffs. This November, 31 states will hold elections or retention elections for judges, and up to 45 states will hold local district attorney elections. Across the country, 2,300 DA’s and sheriffs are up for either election or reelection. Come back tomorrow and learn about one of these progressive candidates from around the country. For an interactive list of law enforcement and judges up for election this year, see the following:
- The Appeal: Prosecutor and Sheriff Elections in 2020: A Masterlist and Calendar
- Ballotpedia: State Judicial Elections, 2020
Reforming the Justice System this November
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said these words in 1968, I don’t think those of us who heard it imagined we’d be so far from that goal in 2020.
The most vulnerable Americans don’t have regular access to health care, housing, education, and social support. We have failed to appropriately address the fallout from the institution of slavery—systemic racism, poverty, disproportionate adverse effects of climate change, and many urgent issues. But one of our democracy’s greatest failures involves the mass incarceration of our people.
In response to a parade of cops killing Black men and women, many people have demanded that we “Defund the Police.” This is a local policy change idea to move from an armed response for all interactions to a triaged response involving social workers, medical or mental health professionals, de-escalation interventionists, or police. Adopting these and other strategies would help lessen incarceration. But it’s only part of the justice reform we need to even the playing field for everyone.
This November, more than half the US will elect or reelect judges. Thousands of district attorneys and sheriffs are on the ballot. All of these positions hold enormous sway over how the justice system is applied. According to Wesley Bell, a Black progressive prosecutor in St. Louis County, Missouri (which includes Ferguson), “We see that the biggest impact on the justice system starts with the prosecutor’s office.”
What’s Really at Stake?
Discretion, an essential part of our justice system, is allowed throughout the justice process. While discretion can mean fair outcomes, it doesn’t always work out that way.
Over the last forty years, the American prison population has grown by 500 percent, resulting in the highest incarceration rate in the world. The prison population explosion does not, and has not, corresponded to an increase in crime. One reason for the population increase is the absence of discretion.
The police can issue a warning or take a person into custody. Sheriffs largely determine how and where people are detained and make choices about cooperation with ICE. Prosecutors can emphasize or de-emphasize certain crimes, create task forces, decline to prosecute crimes, offer plea deals and more. And judges have fairly wide discretion in setting bail, pre-trial and material witness holding, sentencing, and more.
Discretion comes into play based on the justice officials’ assessment of the crime and the accused. This can include their dress, speech, apparent state of mind, willingness to cooperate, demonstration of remorse, ability to understand what’s at issue, and other subjective observations.
Prosecutors’ discretionary judgements are particularly powerful. The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice calls prosecutors the “gatekeepers of the criminal legal system.” They can increase mass incarceration in the US or reduce it. “Prosecutors have the power to flood jails and prisons, ruin lives, and deepen racial disparities with the stroke of a pen,” writes the ACLU. “But they also have the discretion to do the opposite.”
One step towards making criminal justice more fair is to elect or appoint demographically diverse judges, sheriffs, and DAs. Currently, 95% of prosecutors are white. According to the Brennan Center, as of February 2020, twenty-three states had a state supreme court bench made up only of white judges and these include twelve states in which people of color made up at least 20% of the population. Women hold only 37% of state supreme courts, with fifteen states having one or fewer women justices. Florida has none.
At 2019’s off-year election, more than a dozen progressive prosecutors from diverse personal and professional backgrounds won election nationwide. They promoted and implemented a range of fair justice policies including diversion/treatment programs, the sanctioning of bad cops and a moratorium on their testimony. They prioritized violent crime, while seeking alternative ways to address lesser crimes, and sought to apply gun laws more evenly.
But police and outside groups have fought these changes. “Law and order,” as the president trumpets, or “tough on crime” are the calling cards of those unwilling to see how our justice system has unfairly treated many people. Even when they lose law enforcement elections, conservative state legislatures have intervened to remove power from some of these offices.
For example, in Philadelphia County, Larry Krasner won the 2017 election on a promise of reform. In office, he faced push back from law enforcement and was forced to fire thirty-one prosecutors for refusing to carry out his policies. When he moved to have gun laws applied more evenly, the legislature passed a law stripping his power to prosecute gun crimes.
And in Florida, State Attorney for Orlando and Osceola County, Aramis Ayala, the state’s first Black prosecutor, faced harsh backlash when she declared she would never seek the death penalty. Then-Governor Rick Scott barred her from trying any cases eligible for the ultimate punishment, thwarting reform. Because of this retaliation, Ayala declined another run in 2020.
While the path to justice transformation is difficult, progressive prosecutors are running on a new vision of community service and safety this November. If you care about making our lives safer and more just for every person, research the justice officials running in your area. If no progressives are running, demand your justice officials adopt progressive policies.
And #VOTE, #RegisterToVOTE
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