Midterms 2018: Progressive Prosecutors Elected to Reshape ‘Lock-em-up’ Mentality

By Alfonso Serrano Nov 07, 2018

The “tough-on-crime” platform that has shaped district attorneys for generations—and steered them to easy electoral victories across the country—wobbled under pressure on Tuesday (November 6), as several reform-minded prosecutors won office on pledges to transform a criminal justice system that has bloated U.S. prisons and disproportionately targeted people of color.

The electoral gains would have been unimaginable even a few years ago. But the stark campaign reversals, driven by changing voter sentiment over mass incarceration—and financed by deep-pocketed donors—saw progressive district attorneys win seats from Dallas to Boston to Birmingham.

In Dallas, a city with a history of wrongful convictions and death penalty cases, Democrat John Creuzot beat Republican incumbent Faith Johnson.* Johnson, who was appointed by Governor Greg Abbott in December, had touted her record of prosecuting police officers for shooting unarmed civilians.

But that record proved insufficient for voters who have questioned her commitment to stemming mass incarceration. Creuzot, a former state district judge, campaigned on promises to increase diversion programs and curtail charges for certain low-level crimes. He has also pledged to craft a plan within three months to end mass incarceration. By the end of his first term, Creuzot says he’ll cut incarceration in Dallas—the city houses 1.3 million incarcerated people—by 15 to 20 percent.

On Tuesday, Creuzot—who is Black—cruised to victory with 60 percent of the vote.

“Over the course of his campaign, district attorney-elect John Creuzot has expressed a growing commitment to the ACLU’s Smart Justice reform principles,” Sharon Watkins Jones, director of political strategies for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said in a statement. “The ACLU of Texas looks forward to working with him to accomplish the ambitious reform commitments he made during the campaign, in particular his pledge to reduce state jail and prison admissions by 15 to 20 percent within four years.”

District attorneys wield vast powers to prosecute crimes. They alone determine when to pursue criminal charges and which charges to file. As pivotal decision makers, prosecutors have come under mounting criticism for saturating the criminal justice system with felony convictions and fueling disproportionate incarceration rates among Blacks and Latinx people.

With Obama-era efforts to reform the prison system long gone, and with Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordering federal prosecutors to target crime suspects with toughest possible charges, reform backers have increasingly focused on local prosecutors. Those efforts have paid off quickly, boosted by billionaire donor George Soros and advocacy groups like the ACLU and Color of Change. Dozens of progressive prosecutors have won office in recent years, including Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, a longtime civil rights attorney who last year rode to victory on promises to dismantle mass incarceration.

The profound remaking of the prosecutor role continued on Tuesday.

In Massachusetts, Democrat Rachael Rollins became the state’s first Black district attorney, winning the Suffolk County seat with more than 80 percent of the vote. Rollins has pledged to reform the discriminatory cash bail system and to stop prosecuting certain offenses with stark racial disparities.

She also has vowed to end civil asset forfeiture, which gives police expansive powers to seize property from suspects, and to treat drug abuse and mental health with preventive treatment services, not jail time.

"Voters sent a very clear signal today that our criminal justice system is not working for too many people and it’s time for a change," Rollins tweeted last night.

In Jefferson County, Alabama, home to Birmingham, Democrat Danny Carr became the first Black man to hold the post, beating White Republican Mike Anderton with 57 percent of the vote. Carr had questioned the county’s commitment to jailing offenders for low-level marijuana offenses, instead of focusing on violent crimes.

Ahead of the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report showing that Blacks are four times more likely than Whites to be arrested on marijuana possession charges, and five times more likely to be arrested on felony possession charges. In seven law enforcement jurisdictions in Alabama, the report found, Blacks are 10 times more likely than Whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. Other studies show that marijuana arrests surpass arrest rates for violent crimes, and play a large role in swelling U.S. prisons.

The disparate marijuana arrest rates seen in Alabama characterize large swaths of the country, including Dallas, where Creuzot has promised to dismiss first-time cases for small amounts of the drug. Drug treatment, not prisons, Creuzot has argued, is a more effective way of treating marijuana use in the county, which spends $3.5 million annually housing marijuana-related arrestees.

“Ending mass incarceration, let’s work on it, and let’s be smart on crime," Creuzot said Tuesday after his electoral win. "Let’s reduce taxpayer expenditures and reduce crime at the same time. That’s what I’ve always done and will continue to do it."

*Story updated to fix error related to Creuzot’s race.