Plenty of Prosecutors and Sheriffs Will Be Elected in 2019, Too

Daniel Nichanian

This article is part of the Appeal: Political Report’s coverage of 2019 local elections.

Approximately 500 prosecutors and sheriffs will be elected in 2019, nearly all of them in six states: Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

These elections could expand the successes achieved in 2017 and 2018 by organizers looking to transform the criminal justice system and law enforcement practices. In Boston, Durham, Philadelphia, and St. Louis, to name just a few examples, winning candidates left behind traditional “tough on crime” campaigning and committed instead to significant reforms.

Yet these elections still receive the attention they deserve too infrequently. Prosecutors and sheriffs routinely enter office without facing any opponent. And those who do often avoid detailing their platforms based on the misleading claim that their jobs are apolitical. But prosecutors and sheriffs are responsible for setting a wide range of policies that impact detention conditions, incarceration rates, cooperation with ICE, and much more; their political preferences also greatly influence legislative debates. Will 2019 do justice to the fact that decisions made by county-level officials are driving mass incarceration—and that such decisions could also curb it?

These elections can struggle for publicity, especially since prosecutors’ and sheriffs’ roles are not widely known. This is an obstacle to reform-oriented candidates breaking through, especially when challenging an incumbent. “90 percent of my campaign was actually an education about what a DA is, what a DA does,” Corey Williams, who lost an election in Oklahoma, said in November. The fact that 2019 is unencumbered by federal races could help the groups organizing to improve local officials’ visibility. But it could also hinder turnout and mobilization, and the fact that filing and registration deadlines are popping up so soon after the 2018 midterms poses challenges of its own. The next sheriff of Duval County, Florida (Jacksonville), who among other things will decide the fate of the 287(g) contract with ICE, will most likely be chosen by March. And in heavily partisan jurisdictions like Arlington, Virginia, the victor is virtually certain to be settled by the spring or summertime primary stage, so many of these elections really are around the corner.

The Appeal: Political Report has identified the list of jurisdictions that will be electing their prosecutor and/or their sheriff in 2019, as well as the filing deadlines for candidates; you can find it here.

I will return to these elections in more detail throughout the year, clarifying contrasts and stakes. But I am publishing this list now because knowing this full picture is important if we are to take seriously the power of prosecutors and sheriffs. After all, simply identifying which jurisdictions elect their local officials in a given year can be difficult. Many states spread out their local elections over different cycles (for instance, some New Jersey counties will elect their sheriff in 2019, and others in 2020 or 2021) and delegate their administration to county boards. This can further reduce their visibility and hinder accountability by making it harder for organizations and parties interested in the criminal justice system to prepare for elections.

So where might the 2019 cycle impact the criminal justice system?

Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia will select many if not all of their prosecutors or sheriffs this year. Just a handful of counties including San Francisco will hold solitary elections elsewhere. The map below depicts these six states; it also depicts the most populous counties with elections and the counties whose participation in ICE’s 287(g) program is at stake:

Here is a preliminary preview of some of the year’s stakes.

The next DA of Queens: One of 2019’s headline stories is sure to be the election for the next DA of Queens. Longtime incumbent Richard Brown is a staunch opponent of prosecutorial accountability and of steps like conviction review units, The Appeal reported in August. If he retires, or if he loses to one of the three other candidates who are already running—Borough President Melinda Katz, New York City Council member Rory Lancman, and retired Queens Supreme Court Justice Gregory Lasak—it would overhaul the approach to criminal justice in one of the nation’s biggest counties. Katz, Lancman, and Lasak are emphasizing reform commitments to varying degrees. The Political Report will flesh out the contrasts between them in the months ahead.

Challenges bubbling in Virginia: Virginia’s 95 counties are all voting for their commonwealth’s attorney. On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported on three counties where challengers are running by calling for prosecutorial reform (all three are Democrats): Parisa Tafti in Arlington County (against Democratic incumbent Theo Stamos), Steve Descano in Fairfax County (against Democratic incumbent Raymond Morrogh), and Buta Biberaj in Loudoun County (against Republican incumbent Jim Plowman). Of the three, Tafti, a former public defender, may be the most systematically critical toward the status quo. “I want to dismantle the mass incarceration machine and replace it with policies that pursue justice, increase accountability, prevent crime, prioritize serious crimes, and protect civil rights,” she wrote in the Twitter thread announcing her candidacy.

What allies for Krasner? Philadelphia elected Larry Krasner, who ran on a far-reaching platform, to be its DA in 2017. Now Pennsylvania’s second-biggest county, home to Pittsburgh, heads to the polls as well: Allegheny County DA Stephen Zappala has faced no opponent since 1999, but that changes this year. Turahn Jenkins, the county’s chief deputy public defender, is running against Zappala in the Democratic primary. The Appeal has repeatedly reported on large racial disparities in Allegheny County’s criminal justice system, for instance in decisions made by Zappala’s office regarding marijuana prosecutions and regarding which minors are prosecuted as adults.

Forty-eight other Pennsylvania counties hold DA elections, including Northampton County, where longtime DA John Morganelli is retiring. One of 2019’s big questions is whether Krasner gains like-minded allies; Jenkins told The Appeal: Political Report in December that he might emulate Krasner in quitting the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, which he said was “partly responsible for many of the issues that plague our criminal justice.”

Will Doug Evans face any electoral accountability? Listeners to the podcast “In the Dark” (produced by American Public Media) will recognize the name Doug Evans, the DA of Mississippi’s Fifth Circuit court district. (The district covers Attala, Carroll, Choctaw, Grenada, Montgomery, Webster, and Winston counties.) The podcast’s second season is devoted to the case of Curtis Flowers, a man who has been tried six separate times by Evans over the same murder allegations. In November, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal by Flowers concerning the high rate at which Evans’s team struck Black people from the juror pool. And that’s just one of the issues surrounding Evans’s conduct that the season investigates. Evans, a Democrat who has been in office since 1991, is up for re-election this year. He has faced no opponent since 2003. Will that streak be broken now that he is under such a microscope? The deadline for a candidate to jump into this election, as well as in Mississippi’s 21 other DA elections, is March 1.

Will 287(g) shrink further? As of November, 78 jurisdictions had 287(g) contracts with ICE, a partnership that deputizes local law enforcement to act like federal immigrants agents. Three have since quit as a result of the 2018 elections. Will more follow after 2019? Six counties with 287(g) contracts hold elections this year. ICE has partnered directly with sheriff’s offices in five: Duval County, Florida (Jacksonville); East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana; Monmouth County, New Jersey; Rensselaer County, New York; and Culpeper County, Virginia. If new sheriffs opposed to 287(g) were elected in these jurisdictions this year, they would be able to terminate the contracts. (Monmouth County may no longer be part of the program by then because of a new directive by the state’s attorney general.) Jurisdiction is more complex in Virginia’s Prince William County, but the fate of 287(g) rests in large part on who wins the positions currently occupied by Sheriff Glendell Hill and by Corey Stewart, the chairperson of the Board of County Supervisors.

All of these counties currently have GOP sheriffs; Stewart is a Republican too, and a prominent one at that. And yet President Trump received under 50 percent of the vote in four of these counties (all but Monmouth and Culpeper), making them vulnerable at least on paper to a change in leadership. But the clock is already ticking in Duval County, where Democrat Tony Cummings is challenging Republican Sheriff Michael Williams in the March election. The deadline for new candidates to qualify by paying a fee is Jan. 11. When I inquired about Cummings’s views on 287(g), his campaign said that he would consider reviewing and ending the agreement if he found that it is violating the rights of citizens. The campaign’s response also conveyed a broader openness to cooperating with ICE in ways that Cummings would consider lawful.

Other prosecutorial and sheriff elections: Other major elections to which I will return include San Francisco’s DA race, which is open since incumbent George Gascon announced in October that he would not seek re-election (the deadline for candidates is not until August), the Bronx and Nassau DA races in New York, and sheriff elections in all but one Louisiana parish.

Other state/local elections: Prosecutors and sheriffs are of course not the only public officials who impact law enforcement practices. There will be many other state and local elections of interest in 2019. Chicago has an open race for mayor, after activists protesting the city’s policing and prosecutorial practices contributed to Rahm Emanuel’s retirement. In Louisiana, Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards will seek a second term (his Republican challengers are still unknown), and the fate of the reforms that the state has adopted in recent years to reduce its incarceration rate hang in the balance. In Kentucky, which is the state with the highest share of disenfranchised Black residents, Republican Governor Matt Bevin brought the rights-restoration process to a near standstill after he won in 2015; he is now up for re-election.