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A sign for a polling place in California.
Scott Beale / Laughing Squid via Flickr

Three Prosecutor Races to Watch in November

by Anna Simonton

The politics of criminal justice is overwhelmingly local. Although action at the federal level attracts headlines, it’s elected officials like district attorneys, county sheriffs, judges, and mayors, who have the most direct power over policing, prosecution, sentencing, and jail conditions.

Because some jurisdictions skew overwhelmingly in favor of one party, many local elections were effectively decided in primaries earlier this year. But a handful of prosecutor races on the ballot in November could have a major impact on efforts to transform the criminal legal system. Here’s a slice of what we’ll be watching over the coming weeks.

King County (Seattle), Washington

In King County, the next top prosecutor will likely determine the fate of reforms spearheaded by outgoing Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, including a restorative justice program that helps keep youth out of the criminal legal system. Voters in left-leaning Seattle elected a conservative city attorney last year, and the outcome in November’s county prosecutor race will clarify whether that was an anomaly or the new normal amid broader backlash to criminal justice reform.

Leesa Manion, Satterberg’s former chief of staff, has garnered progressive support, despite her relatively centrist platform. If elected, it’s widely believed she’ll stay the course Satterberg has laid. Her opponent, Jim Ferrell, is backed by police organizations and was among a group of mayors who took issue with Satterberg’s youth restorative justice program shortly after it launched, responding with alarmist claims that it contributed to rising crime in their towns. The data suggests this isn’t true, but Ferrell still opposes the program and has called for changes that could mean a return to felony prosecutions for kids who do things like steal a backpack. This would likely have a disproportionate impact on Black youth, who are already charged and incarcerated at far higher rates than any other group.

Despite King County’s progressive bona fides, an August poll indicated a widespread lack of awareness about the race and suggested it could swing either way, with 33 percent of voters undecided.

Alameda County (Oakland), California

In Alameda County, the outcome of a district attorney election could challenge the notion that Chesa Boudin’s recall in neighboring San Francisco was the beginning of the end for justice reform in the Bay Area. Civil rights attorney Pamela Price is running to replace retiring DA Nancy O’Malley, who has attracted criticism for rarely prosecuting cops who kill people and routinely fighting statewide reforms as the president of the California District Attorneys Association.

Price is facing off with Terry Wiley, who has worked in the Alameda DA’s office for more than three decades and has the backing of law enforcement associations. Both he and Price have pledged to never charge children as adults or seek the death penalty, but Price has gone further, saying she’ll aim to remove prisoners from death row and will never seek a sentence of life without parole. The two candidates also diverge on what to do about dangerous conditions in the Santa Rita jail. And Price supports eliminating cash bail to reduce the jail population, but Wiley says pretrial detention is necessary for many people incarcerated there.

A victory for Price would dovetail with the election of a reform-minded sheriff in June, potentially pointing toward a broader shift for a large county with a long history of police brutality, harsh prosecution, and high incarceration rates. But with more campaign cash on hand, Wiley could prevail.

Hennepin County (Minneapolis), Minnesota

Retiring Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman has come under fire in recent years for his inaction on police brutality—including his reluctance to prosecute the cop who killed George Floyd—his office’s mishandling of sexual assault cases, and his willingness to bring felony charges against Black men caught in police stings targeting low-level marijuana sales (which led to changes in his marijuana charging policies). Now the race to replace Freeman is the latest test of the momentum for change in Minneapolis after Floyd’s murder.

Former Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty is running against Martha Holton Dimick, a former prosecutor and judge whose campaign has focused on denouncing the “defund police” movement and raising alarm about violent crime. She’s also claimed Moriarty isn’t fit for the job because she “has just worked with criminals”—apparently her label for anyone being prosecuted in the legal system. Dimick’s rhetoric has won her the support of law enforcement.

Moriarty, who secured the Democratic nomination and is endorsed by a host of progressive organizations, has centered her campaign on challenging the notion that incarceration equates with public safety. “There are lots of evidence-based practices where people don’t go to prison or they have less contact with the system that have less recidivism rates,” she told the Minnesota Reformer. Moriarty has said she wants to rein in the office’s use of overcharging and reliance on guilty pleas, and limit cash bail.

Last year, 56 percent of Minneapolis voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have replaced the city police department with a Department of Public Safety. Dimick has touted this as proof that Hennepin County residents want elected officials who are tough on crime. But supporters of the measure have argued that winning the approval of nearly half of voters indicated a sea change in attitudes about public safety. A victory for Moriarty in November could prove them right.

And more!

These are just a few of the pivotal races taking place in November. The Appeal’s Meg O’Connor has written about the high stakes in the Maricopa County Attorney’s race, which may affect the criminalization of abortion in the nation’s fourth most populous county. In San Francisco, Boudin’s successor, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, is looking to secure a full term after her appointment this year. She’s facing a handful of challengers, including John Hamasaki, a former member of the police commission who is running to the left of Jenkins and recently picked up an endorsement from San Francisco’s Democratic Party. For a full list of prosecutor elections and other local races, check out the great primer Bolts published this week.

What elections or legislation are you following? If you have questions or story ideas about the politics of criminal justice, we’d love to hear from you—just send an email tips@theappeal.org


 

In the news

 

Baltimore prosecutors dropped all charges against Adnan Syed, who was wrongly convicted of killing his high school classmate. Syed, the subject of the podcast Serial, was freed last month. The judge had placed him on home detention while prosecutors decided whether to drop his charges or retry him.[Alex Mann / The Baltimore Sun]

The taxpayers of Rochester will pay $12 million to the family of Daniel Prude. In 2020, Prude’s brother called 911 when his brother suffered a mental health crisis. When the police showed up, they laughed as they pushed Prude’s naked body into the pavement until he was braindead. Prude, who is Black, was unarmed. [Sean Lahman and Kayla Canne / Rochester Democrat & Chronicle] From The Appeal: “That was a lynching,” Prude’s brother told Meg O’Connor when she reported on Prude’s death in 2020. “That was cold-blooded murder.”

Radley Balko investigates the case of Charlie Vaughn, an intellectually disabled man who has spent more than 30 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. [Radley Balko / Substack]

Under Arizona’s near-total abortion ban, people face up to five years in prison for providing abortions. The fear of prosecution is already having a chilling effect, with pharmacists recently refusing to provide life-saving drugs to a child. [Bud Foster / KOLD News 13]

Police departments are trading in their cop cars for bigger, faster SUVs. [Alissa Walker / New York]

Southern Center for Human Rights is hosting a series of workshops for journalists who cover the legal system. The first session will be on Zoom on Wednesday, October 19. The class will give journalists the tools they need to move towards person-first language and balanced narrative framing. For more information, including how to register, click here.


ICYMI — from The Appeal

We are honored to be mentioned! The Appeal received an Honorable Mention for Best Non-Traditional News Source from New York University’s American Journalism Online Awards.

Ethan Corey takes a look at the FBI’s new crime data. He breaks down—with charts!—what you need to know.

Months after New York enacted a landmark law restricting solitary confinement, incarcerated people told Chris Gelardi of New York Focus that they’re facing similarly dehumanizing treatment at so-called “rehabilitation” units. This story was published in partnership with New York Focus. Read more in their investigative series on New York’s implementation of solitary confinement reforms.


That’s all for this week. As always, feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to invest in the future of The Appeal, please donate here.

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