Blue Wave Aside, There Was a Tide of Criminal Justice Victories

Sarah Lustbader

Yesterday was not quite the blue wave that Democrats had hoped for, but when it comes to criminal justice, there was a lot to celebrate.

Ballot initiatives have rightfully gotten much of the attention. Florida voters approved Amendment 4, which will enfranchise nearly 1.5 million people convicted of felonies who have completed their sentences (notably, it excludes anyone convicted of murder or felony sex offenses). Florida also approved Amendment 11, which could significantly lower the state’s prison population by allowing the legislature to cut down sentences retroactively. In Washington State, voters approved a ballot measure that will change a law that currently makes it nearly impossible to hold police officers accountable for using excessive force. Louisiana passed Amendment 2 and now requires juries to be unanimous in order to convict, leaving Oregon as the lone outlier, allowing for convictions over not-guilty votes. Kanye West would surely be pleased to learn that Colorado voters approved a constitutional provision that gets rid of the prison exception to the slavery ban, though the measure is largely symbolic. An Oregon referendum against sanctuary policies failed. Sheriffs in two Alabama counties no longer can pocket money designated for prisoner meals. Three states approved marijuana referendums: Michigan legalized it for recreational use, and Missouri and Utah approved it for medical use. A legalization referendum failed in North Dakota. And Ohioans rejected an initiative that sought to tackle mass incarceration primarily by overhauling the drug laws.

Equally promising for criminal justice reform, progressive candidates for prosecutor and sheriff beat out tough-on-crime opponents in races across the country, from Boston to Birmingham.

In Jefferson County, Alabama, home to Birmingham, Democratic challenger Mark Pettway beat a 20-year incumbent to become the first Black sheriff in the county’s history. “The issue was making sure we bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community,” Pettway said last night. “The issue is trying to help those who are incarcerated. We want to stop the revolving door.”

In another Jefferson County upset, Democrat Danny Carr was elected district attorney, unseating incumbent Republican Mike Anderton. Carr is the first Black district attorney elected in the county.

In Hennepin County, Minnesota, home to Minneapolis, David Hutchinson beat incumbent Sheriff Rich Stanek. Stanek had drawn protests over his cooperation with ICE.Hutchinson, by contrast, committed not to inquire about people’s birthplaces or immigration status. “You will notice the difference between a Republican sheriff and a Democratic sheriff, a sheriff who stands with ICE and a sheriff who stands with immigrants,” Hutchinson promised voters in May.

The same county did not oust its county attorney, however. Democrat Mike Freeman will keep his job as top prosecutor, narrowly defeating Democrat Mark Haase, who challenged Freeman from the left. Despite scandals about racially biased prosecutions, Freeman points to his success at reducing incarceration of minors through diversion programs and changes he implemented to reduce racial disparities in diversion programs.

Those who follow prosecutorial misconduct news are familiar with the infamous Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, who seemed to take misconduct to a new level with behavior that has been called “jaw-dropping” and “the worst in California.” Now, he is out of a job, as County Supervisor Todd Spitzer appears to have unseated his former boss. Spitzer said he wants to restore “faith and trust in our law enforcement and justice system.”

In Doña Ana County, New Mexico, Democrat Kim Stewart appears to have beaten Republican Todd Garrison in the race for sheriff. The incumbent lost in the primary. A central issue of the race was Operation Stonegarden, a program through which the federal government provides localities with grants in exchange for their assistance in border activities. Neither Stewart nor Garrison said the county’s grant posed an ethical problem, but while Garrison strongly defended its importance for law enforcement, Stewart called it an “obligation” that her office would fulfill. But she has also said she might try to minimize assistance. “We need to carefully avoid situations where DASO renders routine assistance,” she wrote on her website. “When we become the immigration police, we shut the door forever on those who need our help.”

The incumbent district attorney in Dallas, Republican Faith Johnsonlost to Democrat John Creuzot, a former state district judge. Creuzot said that he would make probation terms less restrictive and only seek to revoke it for violations that threatened public safety. He also proposed more services for drug use and mental health. In an ACLU questionnaire, Creuzot wrote, “My goal is to reduce Dallas County state jail and prison unit admissions by 15-20% within a four-year period.”

In the sheriff’s race in Wake County, North Carolina, home to Raleigh, Democrat Gerald Baker beat incumbent Donnie Harrison, who was first elected in 2002. “Under Harrison’s leadership, Black residents have consistently born the brunt of aggressive policing,” George Joseph reported for The Appeal. “Though Black people are just over a fifth of the population, they account for 55 percent of use of force incidents since 2002.” Harrison has also worked closely with ICE to help them find and detain immigrants in his county.

In Berkshire County, Massachusetts, progressive defense attorney Andrea Harringtonwon, after beating the incumbent in the primary (he launched an earnest write-in campaign for the general election). She ran on ending “tough-on-crime” prosecution and on confronting “the impact of systemic racism.” Harrington talked with The Appeal in June about wanting to grow restorative justice. As is, she said, “the system doesn’t work.”

Another progressive, prosecutor Rachael Rollins, will be the first Black woman to serve as DA of Suffolk County, Massachusetts, which is home to Boston. “We need to end mass incarceration and restore justice in our communities,” Rollins argued during the campaign. Rollins took a bold step by listing on her campaign website offenses that she would decline to prosecute if elected. These included drug possession, trespassing, and disorderly conduct.

In upstate New York’s Rensselaer County, the incumbent district attorney, Republican Joel Abelove, was voted out in favor of Independent Mary Pat Donnelly. Last year, Abelove gained notoriety when he was indicted for official misconduct and first-degree perjury for his mishandling of a police shooting.

One step backward for criminal justice was the success of Marsy’s Law in six states. Reform advocates have sharply criticized Marsy’s Law, which generally strengthens victims’ ability to testify at hearings, mandates that they be notified of certain developments, and broadens who is classified as a victim. Fordham Law School professor John Pfaff tweeted that the law is a “personal project of a single-minded billionaire” and is so aggressive that even prosecutors frequently oppose it. Melissa Gira-Grant, writing forThe Appeal, said that it has been “successfully challenged, amended, or blocked in several other states that have adopted it.”