Long a tough-on-crime prosecutor, Queens, N.Y., District Attorney Richard Brown will not seek re-election. That could pave the way for a more liberal prosecutor in the populous borough.
One of the nation’s senior urban prosecutors is set to retire, the New York Times reports. When Richard Brown took over as the district attorney in Queens in the early 1990s, murder and violent crime had reached a record high in New York City. Like most prosecutors in that era, Brown adopted a tough-on-crime approach on everyone from squeegee men to drug kingpins. Brown said he would not seek re-election in the fall after 27 years in office, setting the stage for the first competitive primary for Queens district attorney in decades. His decision raised the likelihood that the diverse and changing borough might elect a liberal prosecutor with a reform agenda, which would mark a sea change in local law enforcement. At least five Democrats are expected to run.
The days of high crime when Brown took office are long gone. The murder rate has fallen to its lowest level since the 1950s, and prosecutors are rethinking their roles in a system where success once hinged on the number of convictions their offices amassed. The conversation among urban liberals has turned to avoiding wrongful convictions and ending hard-nosed policies — like targeting minor offenses as a means to reducing major crimes — that critics have argued led to the incarceration of too many black and Hispanic men. Other New York City district attorneys have scaled back the prosecution of marijuana offenses and fare evasion, established conviction review units and have stopped asking for bail in minor cases. Brown, critics say, has not kept pace. Brown said he was bowing out because his health is declining. Brown, 86, moves slowly, shakes with Parkinson’s disease and relies on his police detail for help with small tasks.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner tried to remake the culture of his agency in his first year in office. He has turned over 30 percent of his staff and is stirring controversy. A police union official said he is seeking to “destroy criminal justice.”
In public remarks, policy changes, and staffing decisions, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who campaigned on a pledge to curb mass incarceration, has sought to remake the culture of his agency, if not the system at large, reports Philly.com. He has personally led a national recruiting effort and turned over almost 30 percent of the office’s staff, while unveiling directives that rethink charging decisions, bail requests, and sentencing recommendations. The steps taken by him and his 550 or so staffers have the potential to affect thousands of defendants, victims, advocates, and criminal justice employees across and beyond Philadelphia. City prosecutors last year opened 6,500 fewer cases than the previous year, and half as many as the 73,000 the office filed in 2013.
Kris Henderson of the Amistad Law Project, a public interest law center focusing on sentencing reform and prison abolition, says, “We feel really positively about Mr. Krasner’s first year, even just the re-haul of the attitude of the office.” A few judges have clashed with his office, rejecting plea offers or, in one case, appointing a defense attorney as a special prosecutor. A Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice said his office’s bid to throw out a killer’s death sentence had “no support in the law.” Victims and their relatives have complained about his office resolving cases without notifying them, sometimes in violation of state law. The head of the police union said Krasner is seeking to “destroy criminal justice.” Krasner said that despite an uptick in homicides and shootings, overall violent crime was down even as more people were being let out of jail. “We have challenges ahead, there’s no question about that, and we take them very seriously,” he said. “But what we are seeing in general is that modern policies do not do what our detractors claim: They do not cause crime.”
Not everyone welcomed the election of reform-minded prosecutors around the country last fall. The case of new Suffolk County. Ma., DA Rachael Rollins is an example of pushback from tough-on-crime advocates, warns a reform advocate.
A month before Suffolk County (Ma.) District Attorney Rachael Rollins was elected to become Boston’s District Attorney—and the first woman to hold that post—she announced that she would not prosecute 15 petty offenses.
They range from charges such as “minor in possession of alcohol,” which needlessly suck normal teenagers and young adults into the criminal justice system, to “disorderly conduct,” a statute so broad that it criminalizes whatever a prosecutor feels like it does.
Now, the National Police Association (NPA), a little-known nonprofit formed in 2017, has filed a bar complaint with the Office of the Bar Counsel in Massachusetts in a presumed attempt to strip Rollins’ law license.
The complaint itself is unlikely to succeed, as it fails to clearly state how she violated the Massachusetts Bar’s ethics rules. But it is worth highlighting as a significant attempt to close the main “safety valve” against American mass incarceration: reform-minded elected prosecutors.
We also lack a culture of restraint when it comes to criminalization and punishment. Unlike most European countries that leave the drafting of penal codes to scholarly experts, our laws are an inconsistent patchwork created by state legislators who generally know nothing about criminology and do not care to know. (Criminal law is a mere fraction of their work.)
However, head county prosecutors, often called District Attorneys, are interested enough in the dynamics of crime and public safety to make criminal justice their entire jobs. While they may be unfamiliar with the academic literature on sound crime control and public safety tactics, they take a more macroscopic and systemic view of potential crimes than the average police officer.
The reason is baked into their job descriptions.
Ultimately, a beat patrol officer in Chelsea, Mass.,—a town with a population of approximately 37,000 people—has one main directive. When there is probable cause a criminal law has been broken, the officer is to arrest a person, drive him or her to the jail, and give a report to prosecutors about what was observed.
In contrast, the District Attorney of Suffolk County (population approximately 800,000) must decide whether the crime is probable beyond a reasonable doubt, and whether it is in the best interest of the public to use limited resources on that case.
That is not to say that policing cannot or should not be more strategic or preventative. David M. Kennedy, now a professor of justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, developed a group violence intervention strategy dubbed the “Boston Miracle,” that was considered responsible for the plummeting of Boston’s homicide rate in the 1990s.
However, the implementation of such strategies by police departments is not bottom-up but top-down—a result of partnerships with police chiefs and other law enforcement leaders.
The U.S. is not about to move to the European model, in which advisory boards of academic experts essentially write state criminal codes in lieu of popularly elected legislators.
As such, the closest thing we will get to employing crime expertise to informing criminal justice policy on a day-to-day basis is through our District Attorneys, to whom state legislatures grant nearly unfettered discretion.
This is more or less the conclusion that University of North Carolina Law Professor Carissa Byrne Hessick arrived at in a blog post about Rollins’ petty offense declination policy in September.
In a world of limited resources, District Attorneys cannot prosecute every single crime and petty offense that occurs within their jurisdiction. Instead, they must make decisions on how to use their resources, within the permissive borders of deliberately broad and plentiful criminal laws.
Bill Otis, the Georgetown University law professor whom President Donald Trump nominated to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and who has been sharply criticized for his pro-mass incarceration views—Slate called him “obsessed with black-on-black crime”—has joined the chorus of Rollins critics.
“If I wanted to make a living being a small time thief, would I not be well-advised to move to Suffolk County?” he said, in response to Prof. Hessick.
But Otis ignored the fact that there are many other statutes Rollins could use to crack down on this sort of behavior, one of them being “organized retail crime,” which can fetch up to ten years in state prison.
It is unfair to suggest that Rollins’ plans amount to ineffective crime control measures or will hurt the interests of crime victims. Instead, she is trying to give people a chance to grow from their relatively harmless mistakes without getting clawed into by the criminal justice system.
The same point needs to be emphasized as other reform prosecutors across the country face criticism from those who want to reverse the nationwide movement for justice reform.
It is often said in reform circles that people are more than their worst moments.
If a person’s worst moment is shoplifting a shirt, making a mean comment on an internet video game, or shooting up heroin while chemically dependent, perhaps desistance from the behavior should be good enough for all of us.
Rory Fleming is the founder of Foglight Strategies, a campaign research services firm for forward-thinking prosecutors nationwide. He previously worked for the Fair Punishment Project, which was founded as a joint project of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute and its Criminal Justice Institute. Rory is a licensed Minnesota attorney and he tweets at @RoryFleming8A. Readers’ comments are welcome.
Some won races against long odds and deeply entrenched tough-on-crime attitudes. “It’s a little hard to say whether this reflects a massive sea change,” said Lucy Lang of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
This month, at least eight new reform-minded prosecutors are taking office around the U.S. after winning elections by promising to be more compassionate toward drug addicts and more evenhanded in the treatment of minorities, the Associated Press reports. Some won races against long odds and deeply entrenched tough-on-crime attitudes. In Chesterfield County, Va., a Democratic defense attorney who promised to eliminate cash bonds for nonviolent offenders won a traditionally conservative district held by a Republican for 30 years. In Massachusetts, a lawyer who pledged to stop prosecuting more than a dozen nonviolent crimes became the first African-American woman to win the district attorney’s office in Suffolk County, which includes Boston.
Former judge John Creuzot won in Dallas County, Tx., after promising to reduce incarceration 15 to 20 percent and to treat drug crimes as a public health issue. “Justice is HEART work” was a campaign slogan. For decades, that mantra by someone running for district attorney would have been seen as soft on crime and a turnoff for many voters. A shift began several years ago when candidates tapped into public frustration over high incarceration rates, disparate treatment of minorities, and the longtime war on drugs. The new crop of prosecuting attorneys faces resistance to sweeping reforms from police and prosecutors in their own offices who are accustomed to locking up defendants as long as possible. Larry Krasner, a civil rights attorney who won a longshot bid for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office in 2017, said, “There’s definitely a resistance that comes from the court system itself.” Lucy Lang of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice said the reform-minded prosecutors represent a shift in the public’s attitude toward the criminal justice system. “It’s a little hard to say whether this reflects a massive sea change,” she said.
On his second day in office, St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell fired veteran prosecutor Kathi Alizadeh, who presented evidence to the grand jury that declined to indict a Ferguson police officer in the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown.
On his second day in office, St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell fired veteran prosecutor Kathi Alizadeh, who was primarily responsible for presenting evidence to the grand jury that declined to indict a Ferguson police officer in the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. Bell issued new policies, such as no longer prosecuting marijuana possession and failure to pay child support cases. Alizadeh She had worked for the office since 1988 and earned $135,000. Ed McSweeney, a 34-year veteran of the office who earned $119,974, said he was suspended pending a termination hearing. McSweeney said the action came because of a Facebook post criticizing Bell.
The St. Louis Police Officers Association, which represents prosecutors, said it was “dismayed” by the action. “Despite Mr. Bell’s rhetoric about building bridges with career prosecutors, he has apparently decided to suddenly discharge three dedicated public servants in his first hours in office,” said union president Ed Clark. The union called for their reinstatement. Among other changes announced by Bell: not requesting cash bail on misdemeanor cases and not seeking to “overcharge” defendants “to pressure the accused to admit guilt.” Prosecutors are barred from adding more counts to increase the range of punishment or threatening to route cases back to a grand jury if a defendant has exercised his or her pretrial constitutional rights.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch says inaccurate criticisms of his handling of the Michael Brown killing are the reason he was defeated after 28 years as chief prosecutor in the St. Louis suburbs.
Robert McCulloch has no regrets from 28 years as St. Louis County Prosecutor, in particular how he led the 2014 grand jury investigation of a Ferguson patrol officer’s killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. McCulloch blames the Ferguson protests for his defeat. He lost a primary election to Ferguson Councilman Wesley Bell who ran on a pledge to “fundamentally change the culture” of the prosecutor’s office. “Ferguson is the only reason I’m retiring on Dec. 31,” McCulloch said. “I’ve been getting beaten down on Ferguson for four years.” McCulloch touted highlights of his career, including developing drug and mental health courts, creating a team of victims advocates and building “a truly, highly professional, well-trained office.”
He cited his work on the “truth-in-sentencing law,” requiring people convicted of violent crimes to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, establishing a sex crimes unit and making the office a place where prosecutors could earn enough money to enable them to make the job their career. “You will never find a case in this country involving a fatal police shooting that was more thoroughly vetted than that case,” McCulloch said of the Brown killing. “And yet there’s a perception out there among a lot of people who voted against me that somehow we hid it and tanked it.” At 67, McCulloch is returning to private life. He says he lost the race to someone whose platform relied on “empty” rhetoric and “bogus” claims about his administration. He is worried his successor has focused more on the rights of defendants over crime victims. On low-level drug cases, he said, “You find me the kid who got picked up with a bag of weed in his pocket who’s in the penitentiary, and I will go get him out. He does not exist.”
Only a major overhaul of prosecutors’ traditional practices can break down the deep-seated barriers of distrust and racism that have alienated many American from the justice system and created a “public safety disaster,’ says a paper addressed to the new crop of district attorneys elected in last month’s midterms.
Prosecutors who are willing to rethink their traditional adversarial roles can head off the “public safety disaster” in many American cities caused by long-festering distrust and racism, according to a new paper from the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution (IIP) at John Jay College.
The paper, written by Dan Satterberg, prosecuting attorney in King County, Wa., and Ronald Wright, a law professor at Wake Forest University, calls for a major transformation of the prosecutor’s role as courtroom adversary to one that involves partnership with defense attorneys, community service providers and community leaders.
Dan Satterberg, Prosecuting Attorney, King County, Washington State
The transformation extends to collaborating with public defenders’ offices, engaging more “respectfully” with eyewitnesses, crime victims, and their families, and re-thinking some of the harsher investigative and trial tactics that have alienated many people in at-risk communities, the authors wrote.
“Public safety is something that prosecutors must co-produce with their communities,” the paper said. “It is not something they can simply deliver to the public.”
The authors, addressing themselves to the 2,500 chief prosecutors around the country—including those newly elected in the 2018 midterms—argued that crucial first steps included training their staffs to recognize “implicit and explicit bias,” hiring more people of color, and eliminating the “dehumanizing” language often used to describe eyewitnesses as well as victims.
“An important part of engaging respectfully with the community is acknowledging our nation’s shameful history of slavery and racism which continues to cloud the criminal justice system,” the authors wrote. “As a person, as a prosecutor, you have inherited this history.”
Ronald Wright, Wake Forest University
The paper is the latest in a series of essays aimed at generating what the IIP describes as “high-level culture change” in prosecutors’ offices. The essays are an outgrowth of conversations among leading prosecutors around the U.S. who have participated in Executive Sessions of the Institute, which is funded in part by a grant from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
According to Satterburg and Wright, the U.S. criminal justice system has been undermined by a “silent protest by the most vulnerable members of our society who do not believe that involving police, prosecutors or courts will improve their situation.”
As a result, eyewitnesses and crime victims, including women subjected to domestic abuse and immigrants, simply refuse to help police solve crimes of violence even when they have valuable evidence, in what amounts to a “boycott” of American justice, the paper said.
“These boycotts amount to a public safety disaster,” the authors wrote. “And they point to the greatest challenge for every District Attorney in America: to earn and keep the trust of the communities where crime has the greatest impact.”
The paper argues that prosecutors can only earn that trust by adapting fundamental changes in the way their offices work and think.
A key element in the transformation is moving from the prosecutor’s traditional adversarial role to one of greater partnership with defense attorneys and service providers in the community, involving mutual efforts to find alternatives to harsh sentences and jail time, particularly for non-violent offenders.
“As the elected prosecutor, you should support a strong local public defense system, and insist that the line prosecutors in your office engage in amicable and professional conduct with their counterparts in the defense community,” the authors wrote.
“An adversarial defense system does not require prosecutors to be personal adversaries with defense attorneys.”
Prosecutors were advised to “not take advantage of unprepared defense counsel” and avoid seeking additional charges or sentences beyond the maximum as a tactic for “bargaining leverage.”
The authors outlined five new strategies for a “prosecution that earns community trust.”
Avoid traditional prosecutorial tactics that withhold exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys until the last minute or exploit the plea-bargaining process—used to resolve the majority of cases in the U.S. justice system—by threatening additional charges beyond the maximum as a tactic for “leverage;”
Add “non-prison punishments” such as counseling or alternative courts as a matter of course to the prosecution toolkit, instead of holding them out as a form of leniency that the prosecutor dispenses only in exceptional cases;
Treat victims and eyewitnesses with greater respect, avoiding “dehumanizing language” and making sure that line prosecutors take the time to listen to victims, witnesses, defendants and their families.
Develop partnerships with community-based alternatives that can divert deserving defendants away from the courts before charges are filed in nonviolent cases, and “take the lead in finding sources of money” to develop such programs;
Make accountability and transparency a regular component of prosecutorial offices, through methods such as regular public reports and providing more information to the media.
The authors said conviction rates shouldn’t be the only metric for prosecutors’ effectiveness.
“A community-oriented prosecutor’s office must look beyond conviction rates at trial when measuring success,” the authors said. “Transparent prosecution enables the public to see not just single cases, but trends and patterns in the full range of programs that the office undertakes.”
Citing one practice adopted by the King County prosecutor, an annual report includes reasons why some cases involving juveniles are tried in adult court and others in juvenile court.
The public can “agree or disagree with (the prosecutor’s) decisions, but [they can] do so informed by our transparency,” the study said.
Transforming the prosecutor’s role won’t happen overnight, the authors conceded, but they said every prosecutor should be thinking of long-term goals.
“We hope that prosecutors over the next 15 to 20 years can achieve greater balance among crime prevention efforts, courtroom-based justice responses, and other community responses to safety threats,” the paper said.
“In the end we want to empower communities to enhance their own safety, while trusting the criminal justice system to continue to combat serious violence,” the authors added. “But communities will allow prosecutors to help only if we earn their trust.”
Newly elected district attorneys from Texas to Boston are freezing use of the death penalty, decriminalizing marijuana possession, diverting low-level offenders to classes and treatment instead of jail, seeking less severe sentences and vowing to prosecute police-involved shootings aggressively.
The improbable ascent of self-styled “Mexican biker lawyer” Mark Gonzalez as district attorney in Nueces County, Tx., speaks to the profound change sweeping dozens of local prosecutors offices, the Washington Post reports. From the Gulf Coast to Denver, Chicago and Philadelphia, voters have turned to a new wave of district attorneys pushing a boldly liberal agenda. They are freezing use of the death penalty, decriminalizing marijuana possession, diverting low-level offenders to classes and treatment instead of jail, seeking less severe sentences and vowing to prosecute police-involved shootings aggressively. In a field that is 95 percent white and overwhelmingly male, many are minorities, women or gays and hail from unlikely backgrounds, such as civil rights work or the public defender’s office.
The push intensified in this month’s elections, with liberal groups including George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, the American Civil Liberties Union and a political action committee created by Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King contributing millions of dollars or resources to expand the small pool of progressive prosecutors. They had successes in Boston, Dallas and San Antonio, as well as in the race for Delaware attorney general. Te prosecutors represent one of the biggest hopes for criminal-justice reformers in an era when President Trump has largely pushed for a harsher approach. This new breed of prosecutors is upending a traditional tough-on-crime focus by emphasizing a holistic approach over conviction rates and long sentences. In Texas, Gonzalez plans in January to roll out a cite-and-release program that will keep those charged with low-level offenses out of jail. He said the program will save the county $24,000 a month and also keep the poor, addicted and mentally ill from languishing behind bars.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner withdrew from Pennsylvania’s largest prosecutors’ association, saying the group has supported overly punitive policies and represented “the voice of the past,” The group’s director said Kranser was being “divisive and unproductive.”
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has withdrawn his office from Pennsylvania’s largest prosecutors’ association, saying the group has supported regressive or overly punitive policies and represented “the voice of the past,” reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. Krasner, whose first 11 months in office have attracted national attention for his reform-driven agenda, said he believed that the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association was at least partly responsible for an explosion in the state’s prison population over several decades, and that it continues to back ideas that would make the problem worse. “They have been claiming that Philadelphia supports this absolute nonsense, this throwback set of policies, and we do not,” Krasner said at an “Innovation in Prosecution” conference at the University of Pennsylvania. He added: “The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association will not claim legitimacy of its most important criminal justice jurisdiction and try to take us back 40 years. No.”
Richard Long, the group’s director, said he was “disappointed, but not surprised” by Krasner’s remarks, which he called “a troubling misrepresentation of our organization and the dedicated prosecutors who protect our communities.” The group, with 1,200 members, offers training sessions, holds annual meetings, and lobbies for criminal justice-related legislation. Long said Krasner “has made it very clear that he would rather use the PDAA as a political straw man than engage Pennsylvania’s 66 other district attorneys of both parties in a productive conversation.” He added that “the level of vitriol Mr. Krasner is directing at our members and how they go about their business is divisive and unproductive.” In his talk, Krasner said, “We have a motivated bunch of rural counties — motivated — who want to have our Philadelphians, often black and brown Philadelphians, in their jails, because it gives them power, it gives them money.”
Voters besieged with scary events and frightening rhetoric mostly swung in the opposite direction at the ballot box last week. That’s expanded an encouraging bipartisan reform climate for newly elected, or re-elected, governors, DAs and legislators—if they’re willing to take heed, says a leading justice commentator.
From the 1970s through the turn of the century, criminal justice was one of the most divisive issues in American politics, with the “soft on crime” tag dooming legions of candidates on the campaign trail.
But over the past few election cycles, a wide range of criminal justice reforms has earned public approval, suggesting that the chest-thumping rhetoric of yesterday continues to lose its once-potent appeal.
This month’s midterm elections deepened the trend.
In Florida, where reform has been particularly hard won, voters returned the right to vote to more than a million people convicted of felonies, while Louisiana voters declared that jury verdicts in felony cases now must be unanimous.
These measures erased two of the most egregious vestiges of the pre-civil rights era, and they carry enormous symbolic and practical effects.
Reform-minded prosecutors took over in multiple cities, from Boston to St. Louis. Police accountability was strengthened in Nashville and in Washington State. Though criminal justice wasn’t central to their campaigns, the governors-elect in Wisconsin and Nevada seem much more likely to advance sensible policies than their predecessors.
These gains for safety and justice, and many others, are particularly impressive in light of the political environment. From the time that polls opened for early voting through Election Day, there was a massacre of worshipers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, a dozen bombs mailed to prominent political figures, and White House warnings about a caravan “invading” the country across its southern border.
Violence (and the fear of it) had to be high on voters’ minds. And it was: 83 percent of voters told exit pollsters that “extremist violence” was a factor in their votes.
When people are afraid, they yearn for protection, which traditionally has meant support for “lock ‘em up” measures.
Yet across the nation, voters besieged with scary events and frightening rhetoric mostly swung in the opposite direction this month. That suggests a real realignment of public opinion toward crime and punishment—one that distinguishes terrorism from street crime, that views people convicted of crimes as humans rather than “others,” and that recognizes the path to safer communities isn’t paved only with bricks and mortar.
But there were caveats and mixed signals as well. Some of the progressive prosecutor candidates were defeated, while others didn’t make it through the primaries. The measure with the most direct potential impact on incarcerated populations—a ballot initiative in Ohio to downgrade some drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors and reinvest the prison savings into treatment and victim services—went down by nearly 30 points.
Mike DeWine, Gov.-Elect of Ohio. Photo via Wikipedia
The Republican candidate for governor in Ohio, state Attorney General Mike DeWine, had been a strong supporter of expanding incarceration alternatives for lower-lever drug violators—and he may still be. But when his Democratic gubernatorial opponent, Richard Cordray, embraced the ballot measure designed to do exactly that, DeWine came out against it, arguing that as written the policy would make Ohio a magnet for dealers.
(Now that he has won, the legislature may take up and pass a similar package of policies in the lame duck session.)
In California, Gavin Newsom’s victory is likely to reinforce California’s efforts at prison reform. On the other hand, although the ballots are still being counted in Florida, once again, the nominal winner of Florida’s gubernatorial contest, Ron DeSantis, ran on a hardline justice platform while his opponent Andrew Gillum championed changes to the bail system and other reform measures.
Clouding the picture: Gillum, the Democrat, cited the conservative groups Right on Crime and the James Madison Institute as the sources of his criminal justice policy advice.
The Georgia governor’s race was another subtle illustration of how tricky this terrain remains. Republican candidate Brian Kemp took aim at illegal immigration and violent gangs but steered clear of criticizing the extensive efforts of outgoing Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who led six consecutive years of nearly unanimous legislative action on criminal and juvenile justice.
Meanwhile, Democrat Stacey Abrams ran on an aggressive reformist agenda, but the messaging in her television ads and in the sole televised debate was far more forceful, lamenting low pay for local law enforcement officers and promising to crack down on drug peddlers.
One possible – and encouraging – takeaway from the electoral tea leaves is that criminal justice has been largely defanged as a campaign weapon. Healthcare, the economy and immigration ranked as the top tier issues; in the big races, bread-and-butter criminal justice policy flew under the radar, with few candidates for major offices featuring it as a core component of their platforms.
When they do raise the subject, it’s typically to call for more safety and justice rather than pitting the two against each other.
At the national level, an otherwise paralyzed Congress just managed to pass comprehensive legislation to combat the opioid epidemic, an effort that focused on expanding treatment and avoided the reflexive sentencing enhancements of the past. It also appears poised to approve both sentencing and prison reforms as part of the “First Step Act,” which would be the first major federal criminal justice policy package in years.
That criminal justice reform has become such fertile ground for bipartisanship may help explain why the reform agenda was neither a grand asset nor a grave liability in last week’s elections. American voters seem savvier about the issue and demand more than baseless rhetoric and simplistic slogans.
They’ve seen that movie, and now they want real results.
The new crop of elected officials across the country, at all levels of government and up and down the political spectrum, would do well to take notice.
Adam Gelb has worked in criminal justice for more than 30 years as a journalist, congressional aide, senior state government official, and nonprofit executive. He is currently developing a national nonpartisan criminal justice membership organization and think tank.