Aug. 2, 2018—Political Report

Daniel Nichanian

Four years after Michael Brown’s death, the Ferguson protests are resonating in St. Louis County’s Aug. 7 elections. Today, you’ll read about those primaries and other local stories:

  • Georgia: Criminal justice reform a defining issue in governor’s race

  • Missouri: St. Louis prosecutor faces first opponent since Ferguson protests

  • Missouri: Ferguson activist challenges Democratic member of Congress

  • Utah Utah County has been debating oversight of prosecutors

  • Washington: Legislative candidate attacked over support for second chances


Georgia: Criminal justice reform a defining issue in governor’s race

Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee in Georgia’s gubernatorial race, has made criminal justice reform central to her unusually progressive campaign. She has laid out a detailed platform with the stated goals of decreasing incarceration and facilitating the re-entry of people released from prison. The first priority she lists is eliminating cash bail, which she calls a form of “wealth-based discrimination.” Other proposals include decriminalizing marijuana possession, increasing alternative-sentencing programs, and raising the age at which teenagers are treated as adults. This document also advocates “banning the box,” as in barring employers from asking about job applicants’ conviction history.

Even if an Abrams governorship coincided with continued Republican control of the legislature, recent history suggests that certain GOP lawmakers could be open to working with her on some of these goals. Under Republican Governor Nathan Deal, Georgia passed a series of reform bills that enhanced diversion programs, scaled back mandatory minimums, and required judges to consider a defendant’s finances when setting bail. (The city of Atlanta also adopted an ordinance  this year that restricts the use of cash bail for some municipal and misdemeanor offenses.) These laws have contributed to a decline in Georgia’s incarceration rate, with the number of people entering prison in 2017 at its lowest since 2002.

Abrams faces Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state, who benefited from President Trump’s endorsement to decisively win the Republican nomination on July 24. Much of Kemp’s campaign revolves around toughening law enforcement. He wishes to facilitate deportations and implement a new database to track immigrants, as well as pour money into increased anti-gang policing and prosecution. “Gang members” should “never see daylight again,” he wrote in one op-ed.

Abrams also frames expanding Medicaid and other public health policies as essential for re-entry and rehabilitation. Georgia has for now rejected the Medicaid expansion funds provided by the Affordable Care Act. This has contributed to the crisis that has hit the state’s hospitals, forcing closures and threatening low-income Georgians’ access to healthcare. Unlike Abrams, Kemp opposes expanding Medicaid and wants to create work requirements for existing recipients, an idea that has gained new life under the Trump administration. Work requirements are especially burdensome for people released from incarceration because of the obstacles to employment that they face, as Emma Sandoe, a Ph.D. candidate in health policy at Harvard, explained in February.


Missouri: St. Louis prosecutor faces first opponent since Ferguson protests

St. Louis County’s longtime prosecuting attorney Bob McCulloch is seeking an eighth term, four years after the 2014 Ferguson protests. That year, he drew heavy criticism for the way he handled his investigation into Michael Brown’s shooting and for his failure to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Brown. His actions fit a long pattern of cases in which he did not press charges after police shootings of unarmed Black men, Pema Levy reported at the time.

In the Aug. 7 Democratic primary, McCulloch faces Wesley Bell, a former public defender who was elected to the Ferguson City Council in 2015. The primary winner will face no opponent in the November general election.

McCulloch is campaigning as a “public safety” candidate and warning against the advocacy of reform groups. “That is a real danger to public safety. They don’t think people ought to go to prison,” McCulloch said according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But Bell has campaigned on a need for reform. “That antiquated model of focusing on conviction rates and looking strong, that model is not working and is not making us safer,” he said.

What does this contrast mean for concrete policies? In their answers to a lengthy questionnaire prepared by the ACLU of Missouri, Bell makes a series of reform commitments that McCulloch does not mirror. (You can read Bell’s and McCulloch’s full answers.) Commitments that only Bell makes include: never seeking the death penalty, eliminating money bail for nonviolent offenses, supporting the creation of safe injection sites, opposing legislation that sets new mandatory minimums, reducing the share of cases in which prosecutors seek the maximum sentence, and considering the immigration ramifications of prosecutorial decisions. While campaigning, Bell is specifically spotlighting his stance on money bail, for instance tweeting this brief video on why he opposes its use.

As for the issue that looms over this race, Bell states in his questionnaire that he would entrust investigations into police misconduct to an independent unit or independent prosecutor. During the 2014 protests in Ferguson, McCulloch faced calls for a special prosecutor to take over because of concerns that he was not impartial, but he did not recuse himself.

The candidates operate on different financial planes. McCulloch has raised $370,000 since his current term began in 2015, and more than $200,000 this year alone; Bell has raised $124,000, much of which just over the past few weeks. In addition, McCulloch has been endorsed by “every living former police chief in St. Louis County,” Alan Greenblatt reports. Local organizations supporting Bell include Indivisible St. Louis and the Ethical Society of Police.


Missouri: Ferguson activist challenges Democratic representative

Criminal justice and policing reform are in the spotlight in Missouri’s 1st Congressional District, which includes St. Louis and Ferguson. One of the candidates in the Aug. 7 Democratic primary is Cori Bush, a pastor who participated in the 2014 Ferguson protests and other local initiatives, and helped organize subsequent rallies. She has also worked as a director of the Truth Telling Project, a group that aims to document the stories of people who have suffered from police brutality. Bush has anchored her campaign on targeting the school-to-prison pipeline, which in one video interview she proposes doing via economic justice and public health reforms like expanding mental health coverage, fighting food deserts, and creating job training programs.

Bush is challenging Representative Lacy Clay, who has held the seat since 2001 and is close to the Democratic leadership of St. Louis County. After Michael Brown’s shooting, Clay lobbied for police reforms like more body cameras and de-escalation training; he supports Medicare for All, as does Bush. He is now campaigning on his legislative experience and on the advantages that his congressional seniority brings to the district, while Bush highlights “the experience that I have from the street.” “When you fight for the community, when you walk with the community, when you’re boots to the ground … now that’s another thing,she said in the video interview. Two other Democrats will be on the ballot, DeMarco Davison, who recently suspended his campaign, and Joshua Shipp.


Utah: Utah County has been debating oversight of prosecutors

Prosecutorial misconduct draws little accountability in Utah. “A Salt Lake Tribune analysis of court documents and public records show[s] Utah’s prosecutors are rarely disciplined, even as complaints of misconduct are brought to light during court proceedings or in the appeals process,” Jessica Miller wrote in her detailed 2017 investigation.

Last year, the Utah County commission proposed creating a review board external to the county attorney’s office to investigate allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. The idea was backed by the ACLU of Utah and the Libertas Institute, and also by residents demanding more oversight of prosecutors. But it derailed in February after police and prosecutors rallied against it. County Attorney Jeff Buhman called it “a direct attack” on prosecutors, proposing instead an internal board that would report to the county attorney.

Buhman did not run for a new term this year. The ensuing Republican primary, tantamount to winning the election in this typically GOP-voting county, ended with the victory of David Leavitt, the former county attorney of a smaller county who has also worked as a public defender. Leavitt defeated Chad Grunander, who works in the county attorney’s office.  

Leavitt and Grunander offered differing views on whether to create an external review board, the Daily Herald recounts. Grunander’s stance was similar to the incumbent’s: clear opposition. But Leavitt defended the idea of an external board, though one that would operate statewide under the attorney general’s control rather than at the county level. This disagreement mirrored a wider clash between the two on whether prosecutorial misconduct is a problem in Utah County. Grunander rejected that premise, but Leavitt said that the commission’s proposal was born of a series of “abuses” that had “made the citizens rise up and say ‘enough is enough.’”

Leavitt did not reply to a request for comment clarifying his stance on the board as proposed. The Utah County commission indefinitely tabled its proposal in February, so I will track whether it picks it up again and what position Leavitt adopts in response if he wins in November. His only general election opponent, Libertarian Andrew McCullough, supports an external review board.


Washington: Legislative candidate attacked over support for second chances

In 2017, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously reversed a decision by the State Bar Association to block Tarra Simmons from taking the bar exam because of her criminal record. Emily Randall, a Democrat running for the state Senate this year, turned to social media that day to express support. “In law, like in any profession, we need diversity,” she wrote on Facebook. “Tarra’s path and her raw conviction to change her life—and help others change theirs—makes her even more qualified to practice law.”

Republicans have since used this Facebook post to attack Randall as “too soft on crime.” “Randall has supported Tarra Simmons, a drug-addicted ex-con who was denied admission to the Washington State Bar Association due to multiple felony convictions,” a recent campaign mailer said. The mailer was sent by WA Forward, a PAC affiliated with prominent GOP lawmakers; Randall’s Republican opponent Marty McClendon has since disavowed the attack.

I asked Randall how her support for Simmons would translate into policies that foster second chances. She mentioned her support for the rehabilitative Post Prison Education Program and called for a focus on fighting the “school-to-prison pipeline” by “lower[ing] costs and other systemic barriers at all levels of education.” She also made a case for expanding the ability of young defendants to remain within the comparatively rehabilitative juvenile system. “Science is clear that young people’s brains do not stop fully developing until they are 25 years old,” she said.

Washington State’s 26th Senate District is in Pierce County, south of Seattle. It is held by a retiring Republican. There are three candidates on the Aug. 7 ballot: McClendon, Randall, and Bill Scheidler, an independent. The top two will move on to a November runoff. This is a swing district that has voted evenly in recent presidential elections, according to Daily Kos Elections data. Its result could determine the balance of power in Olympia, where Democrats currently hold a one-seat majority in the state Senate.

The death penalty is one issue where this election could make a difference. The Washington Senate narrowly voted to abolish it in 2018, but the House adjourned without picking up the bill. Randall told me that she would vote in favor of abolishing the death penalty if the bill came up again next year, emphasizing its ineffectiveness as a deterrent. McClendon has indicated support for the death penalty.


Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week!