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Eric Holder May Be Considering a Presidential Run. But Has His Time Passed?  

As voters begin to realize that prosecutors in the world's most incarcerated nation may not be the best people to run the government, the era of the prosecutor politician could be on its way out.  

Attorney General Eric Holder testifying in 2012 before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He served as AG from 2009 to 2015.
Mark Wilson / Getty

Eric Holder May Be Considering a Presidential Run. But Has His Time Passed?  

As voters begin to realize that prosecutors in the world's most incarcerated nation may not be the best people to run the government, the era of the prosecutor politician could be on its way out.  

Eric Holder’s recent visit to New Hampshire has sparked speculation that he might mount a presidential run in 2020.

During a June 1 visit  at the “Politics and Eggs” series at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown, the former U.S. attorney general blasted gerrymandering—“I think our democracy is under attack”—but puzzlingly endorsed the restrictive voter registration law that New Hampshire Republicans have pushed through the state legislature that now awaits review in the state’s highest court.

A 2020 run for Holder is a long shot but it’s this sort of mushy centrism that probably  dooms his chances at the White House. “The Democratic Party is being pulled left … by the Bernie [Sanders] crowd,” Boston University political science professor Thomas Whalen told the Boston Herald. “They probably don’t want a moderate like Holder.”

If Holder does run, it would be on his record as head of President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice, a position he held through April 2015. It’s a record based on his toughness on crime and terrorists but also on Holder’s embrace of criminal justice reform, a matter of growing importance to the Democratic primary voters ill at ease with our world-beating incarceration rate and extremely punitive response to seemingly everything.

Holder’s credibility as a tough prosecutor is merited but his reputation as a reformer is, alas, largely nonsense despite his widely reported public statements against mass incarceration. “It’s both jaw-dropping and heart-warming to see that an issue that is that important can get people from such disparate political views together,” Holder said in 2014, “We have 5 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of the people in incarceration. That’s not something that we can sustain.”

Holder is obviously more progressive than current Attorney General Jeff Sessions—who isn’t?—but his leadership of the DOJ was marked by risk-aversion and conservatism.

For starters, when Congress enacted the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 which reduced the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1, Holder’s DOJ sent its prosecutors to court to argue against its retroactivity.

“President Obama’s Department of Justice has adopted the advocacy policy that the unfair and now reformed old crack sentencing statute should and must be applied for as long as possible to as many defendants as possible,” wrote Douglas Berman, a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. According to a recent autopsy of Obama-era criminal justice reform efforts by law professors Rachel Barkow and Mark Osler, Holder often seemed more concerned with placating the hardline career prosecutors within DOJ than granting the scope of clemency intended by Congress. “The Obama Administration’s failure to accomplish more substantial reform, even in those areas that did not require congressional action,” Barkow and Osler wrote, “was largely rooted in an unfortunate deference to the Department of Justice.”

The Holder DOJ was also aggressive in pursuing whistleblowers like Edward Snowden but also less controversial figures like Thomas Drake, who exposed National Security Agency dragnet surveillance, and John Kiriakou, a CIA torture whistleblower. Holder’s DOJ fought to uphold the broad and vague statute against “material support” for terrorism, thereby criminalizing a surprising amount of charitable giving abroad. Tarek Mehanna received a 17-year sentence for running a militant-sympathizing website that didn’t contribute to any specific crime. These and similar cases were small in number, but as law professor and formal federal defender Wadie Said argued, such national security and terrorism prosecutions cast a long shadow over the entire justice system, shifting the parameters for what is procedurally acceptable in the state’s treatment of more run-of-the-mill criminal defendants.   

If Holder’s DOJ showed little mercy to drug offenders and whistleblowers, his DOJ was tender and mild with big banks after the financial asset bubble collapse. “There were no subpoenas, no document reviews, no wiretaps” is how one DOJ source described Holder’s approach to Wall Street crime. At the end of 2014, Columbia Journalism Review business reporter Ryan Chittum observed that “Holder leaves office having been far outclassed by the Bush administration even in prosecuting corporate criminals, despite overseeing the aftermath of one of the biggest orgies of financial corruption in history.”

The punitive zeal that has dealt over 2,000 Americans federal life without parole sentences for nonviolent drug crimes was nowhere to be found in the Holder DOJ’s kid-glove treatment of the masters of the universe. Indeed, in a DOJ investigation of HSBC for laundering billions of Mexican drug cartel profits, Holder overruled career DOJ prosecutors who sought criminal charges against the big bank. HSBC eventually simply settled with the government for $1.9 billion which Rolling Stone rightly noted proved that “the drug war is a joke.”

What about clemency? Big, categorical amnesties have historical precedent at the state and federal levels, including Jimmy Carter pardoning the Vietnam draft evaders,  Woodrow Wilson granting clemency to Prohibition-law offenders, and Mississippi Governor Mike Conner’s “mercy courts” at Parchman Farm in the 1930s. Obama had the chance for bold and categorical measure here, but he blew it, largely because again he entrusted it to Holder’s DOJ which has hardwired institutional bias of prosecutors and former prosecutors.  The nearly 1,700 commutations granted by Obama may seem impressive, but this is a trickle amid an exponentially expanded federal prison population. The Federal Bureau of Prisons held 192,170 in Obama’s last full year in office; up from 50,513 in 1988. In fact, Ronald Reagan granted clemency to a higher percentage of the federal prison population than Obama. A recently published NYU Law School study on the Obama administration’s clemency initiative concluded that it was a “bureaucratic maze that was controlled by the Department of Justice, and this design increased the likelihood of a clemency petition being denied at any given point in the process.”

Holder may have mouthed the words “mass incarceration” to the likes of The Marshall Project and others, but when it came to actually delivering impactful and badly needed criminal justice reform, he was a failure.  

All of this may have less to do with Holder himself than with the inevitable consequences of putting a career prosecutor, and a federal agency full of career prosecutors, in charge of criminal justice reform. And this forces a bigger question: What structural biases are prosecutors bringing to American politics?

Unlike other wealthy liberal democracies, prosecutors play an outsize role in our political culture. From the early 20th century, the local district attorney’s office—all but four states elect their prosecutors—has been a frequent springboard to the state attorney general’s office, the governor’s mansion, the Supreme Court, the U.S. Senate. Today there’s no shortage of former prosecutors in American politics including the avuncular liberal Pat Leahy (D-Vermont) and the antediluvian Sessions.

According to a dataset made public by legal historian Jed Shugerman, who is writing a book on the rise of the prosecutor politician, our political class is saturated with crusading DAs. From 2007-17 in 38 states, his research shows that 38 percent of state attorneys general, 19 percent of governors, and 10 percent of U.S. senators have prosecutorial career backgrounds. The big presence of prosecutors in our politics goes a long way in explaining why our government has been so ready to see our collective problems (and even some non-problems) as criminal justice issues, always requiring the response of more police, prisons, and criminal law statutes.  

Have we reached peak prosecutor politician? It does seem like the bloom might be off the rose. Take Senator Kamala Harris, former California AG and San Francisco DA, who now clutches the mantle of reform like a high-end scarf as she possibly looks at a presidential run. But as her lackluster reform record becomes more widely known—opposition to state sentencing reform measure Proposition 66; punishing the parents of truant children with up to a year in jail; failure to prosecute OneWest, a foreclosure mill bank that until 2015 was run by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin—she’s got a problem.

And so, too, will Eric Holder if Democratic primary voters learn that as U.S. Attorney for Washington, D.C., in the mid-1990s he initiated Operation Ceasefire “where police would stop cars on any pretext, of a minor traffic violation, speeding, tinted windows, you name it, because they wanted to search those cars for guns.” Such actions once signified  “toughness” to Democrats eager to wimp-proof their right flank, especially in the post Willie Horton-era. But now, nearly 30 years later,  for a growing number of Democratic primary voters, such prosecutorial harshness is, like mass incarceration and unjustified police shootings, a moral abomination. It might also be a political dealbreaker.

We surely haven’t seen the last of prosecutor politicians who grandstand and indict their way into cable news glory and donor-class cocktail parties. But a little light bulb is going on over an increasing number of Americans’ heads that ambitious prosecutors in the most carceral country on the planet are perhaps not the best people to put in charge of fixing our justice system, much less running our government.

The Family Of An Unarmed High Schooler Shot By Police Begs For 'Real Change'

The King County Sheriff's Office told reporters Tommy Le had a knife. He was actually holding a pen.

Tommy Le shortly before his death.
Provided by the Le family

The Family Of An Unarmed High Schooler Shot By Police Begs For 'Real Change'

The King County Sheriff's Office told reporters Tommy Le had a knife. He was actually holding a pen.

For those who loved Tommy Le, the 12 months since he was killed by police on a suburban Seattle street have been what his aunt Uyen Le described last week as “a year of unending grief, shame, and humiliation.”

Le, the 20-year-old son of Vietnamese refugees, was hours away from graduating from high school when he was shot by a deputy sheriff on June 14, 2017. The young man’s family was heartbroken by his death, and Washington State’s large Vietnamese-American community shared a piece of their pain.

But Le’s family says their hurt was amplified by an allegation made by King County Sheriff’s Office officials hours after Le was killed. Officials with the sheriff’s office, which provides police services to many Seattle suburbs, released a statement indicating Le charged deputies with a knife. Nine days passed before the claim was corrected.

In fact, Le was carrying a black ink pen when he was shot, not a “knife or some sort of sharp object” described in a media release on the sheriff’s office Twitter feed. No knife was found.

Those statements were the subject of an independent review of the communications related to King County deputy-involved shootings. In a report released Tuesday, researchers with the University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information noted the sheriff’s office misinformed the public and then didn’t correct the record. Le’s family addressed King County leaders during a Seattle hearing on the report.

Responding to the Brechner Center findings, King County Council Chair Joe McDermott blamed the sheriff’s office for the untrue statements.

“Tommy’s aunt spoke about a year of grief, shame, and humiliation,” McDermott said during the Tuesday hearing. “It strikes me that Tommy’s death alone would cause the grief. But the shame and humiliation were caused and compounded by inaccurate information that was disclosed in the first place and then wasn’t corrected.”

Le's mother and aunt address county officials at a hearing last week.

The night he was killed, Le was walking near his home in Burien, a racially diverse, economically mixed city abutting Seattle’s southern city limit. According to law enforcement, deputies rushed to the area just after midnight when a resident reported firing a warning shot at a ranting man brandishing a knife. The sheriff’s office contends Le was identified to deputies as the unstable, armed man.

Three deputies confronted Le, who, at 5’4, was significantly smaller than the man who killed him, identified by the sheriff’s office as Deputy Cesar Molina. According to the office, Molina and another deputy fired Tasers at Le twice before Molina shot Le, who was then handcuffed as he lay dying. An autopsy by the county medical examiner would later show Le’s liver, left kidney, and spleen had been shredded by two hollow-point bullets.

In a statement to The Appeal on Friday, King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht said her office may revisit its use-of-force policies once a review of Le’s shooting is complete. Johanknecht said she hopes the review will address questions the Le family has about Le’s death, while pledging to work on improving communication and transparency.

“No one wants to see a 911 call for assistance result in a death and I am saddened by the loss of any life,” said Johanknecht, who was elected to her first term as sheriff in November. “I am confident … the review processes in place will determine whether there is a need to revise the training or policies regarding the use of deadly force in unknown and potentially dangerous situations, such as this one.”

The initial sheriff’s office statement after the shooting asserted Le had a weapon in hand when he was shot.

“A homeowner fired a warning shot at a man running at him with a sharp object in his hand. When deputies responded to the scene, the suspect came at them as well,” last year’s statement reads.

Brechner Center researchers noted “the release did not specify Le’s weapon but stated that he was ‘holding a knife or some sort of sharp object.’ Much of the resulting press coverage seized on the idea that Le wielded a knife, and the Sheriff’s Office did not correct any of the inaccurate reports.”

Jeff Campiche, an attorney representing Le’s family in a civil lawsuit against King County, told The Appeal that the sheriff’s office “wanted to make themselves look better because they shot an unarmed, 120-pound high school student in the back.”

“Is it possible, after the young man is lying on the ground bleeding to death, that the sheriff’s office didn’t know he was unarmed?” Campiche asked.

Demanding Candor After Shootings

Johanknecht said her office “values transparency and the public’s trust.”

“It is not the policy of the KCSO to intentionally mislead the public, media or anyone regarding its interactions with the communities we serve,” she told The Appeal, referring to the King County Sheriff’s Office.

Despite heightened public interest in police violence, police practices vary widely when it comes to disclosure after officer-involved shootings.

As part of their review, Brechner Center researchers contrasted the Louisville Metro Police Department’s aggressive disclosure of reports related to police shootings with the Los Angeles Police Department’s approach, which they described as “reactive and restrictive.” Authors of the report, led by Brechner Center director Frank D. LoMonte, describe a national trend toward greater proactive disclosure and away from requiring the public to fight for access to information.

The new transparency is in part self-serving. Researchers noted that the Chicago Police Department compounded a public relations disaster after the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by fighting the release of a dashcam video for more than a year. The apparent cover-up cost Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy his job, and the city paid millions of dollars to settle the McDonalds’ lawsuit. The officer who killed McDonald has since been charged with murder.

Deborah Jacobs, who was picked last year to head King County’s police oversight office after 13 years as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s New Jersey chapter, said Tuesday that communities around the country are demanding candor.

“The initial information released by law enforcement shapes the narrative and becomes the public understanding of an incident,” Jacobs said. “The release and perpetuation of inaccurate or misleading information about an incident has serious potential consequences for all involved.”

Jacobs advocates for what she characterized as small but critical moves toward disclosure suggested in the Brechner Center report. One key change would require the sheriff’s office to regularly update the public on high-profile incidents, including officer-involved shootings, through press briefings and social media. The office would also be required to immediately correct inaccurate or misleading information it publicized.

Calls for Accountability

Le’s death helped prompt an expansive review of another piece of King County’s response to officer-involved killings: the shooting inquest.

Inquests are fact-finding trials in which jurors rule on the facts of a contentious incident without awarding damages or assigning a punishment. Prosecutors call witnesses and present evidence to the jury, which then judges the legality of the shooting.

“Their basic function is to figure out, as best they can, the truth about how someone died and to explain that truth to the public,” Paul MacMahon, an assistant professor of law at the London School of Economics who has written extensively on inquest systems, wrote in an email to The Appeal.

“That process can be itself a form of accountability for those guilty of wrongdoing. … Inquests can help institutions and the public to learn from mistakes, and to help victims’ families and society at large come to terms with difficult events,” he continued.

But advocates for police reform often find little to like about state inquest systems. King County’s inquest process, derived from a 164-year-old state law, provides no opportunity for the public to challenge the law enforcement account of a shooting. Le’s family has pushed for reform of this process, which their attorney calls a one-sided “whitewash.”

County Executive Dow Constantine paused all inquests in King County, including Le’s, in December and initiated a review he pledged will “make inquests more transparent, fair, and meaningful for all those involved, and to provide greater confidence in our justice system to the entire community.”

Inquests have proved useful in examining deaths at the hands of police elsewhere. A Milwaukee inquest jury faulted several officers involved in the 2011 death of Derek Williams, who died in the backseat of a squad car after police failed to provide him medical attention. Leaders in Clark County, Nevada, recently crafted an inquest system as part of a larger accountability effort.

A task force that includes a retired police leader and two people whose loved ones were killed by police recommended reforms to King County’s inquest system in March, but the county has yet to enact them. A representative for Constantine said the executive expects to issue an order in the near future. A sheriff’s office review board is expected to examine Le’s shooting in coming weeks.

So, as Le’s family members end their first year of grief, they wait.

“We’re begging for more,” Uyen Le, who was raised with her nephew, said during Tuesday’s hearing. “Real action. Real change. Accountability. Only then will our family receive the justice that we and Tommy deserve.

“We are a strong Vietnamese family, a good family, and we’re supported by the greater community. We will not give up until the county decides to take responsibility for what happened to Tommy.”

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'You Never Want to go to the Workhouse'

Activists launch a new campaign to close an infamous St. Louis jail.

Prisoners chant and wave shirts out of their windows during a protest at the St. Louis Medium Security Institution, also known as “the Workhouse," on July 21, 2017.
Daniel Shular

'You Never Want to go to the Workhouse'

Activists launch a new campaign to close an infamous St. Louis jail.

Two rows of barbed wire fencing can’t block the screams that escape from behind the barred windows at the jail. “Help us!” the men shout from inside. The sweltering sun beams down on the two-story brick building, heating its cells. “Let us out!” they beg. “We ain’t got no AC!”   

Their pleas were immortalized when Elliot Davis, a Fox2Now reporter, captured the moment on video last summer. The clip was widely circulated, igniting protests outside the St. Louis Medium Security Institution, also known as “the Workhouse.” Demonstrators faced pepper spray as they demanded air conditioning for prisoners left to roast in triple-digit temperatures during a dangerous heatwave. The protests and political pressure proved successful as city officials arranged for temporary, portable air conditioning units to be installed in portions of the jail, though there is still no permanent fix. 

Community organizers say the lack of air conditioning was only one of the facility’s many problems, which have sparked complaints for years but have been routinely ignored. But the activists say they have had enough. Since last July, the jail’s conditions have been the subject of numerous protests, complaints, a lawsuit, and now a new campaign calling for its closure. ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit law firm; Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, social justice organizationSaint Louis Action Council, a Black-led, multiracial activists collective; and The Bail Project, a national revolving bail fund, have together launched a new campaign called Close the Workhouse. They say the facility is inhumane and disproportionately incarcerates poor people and people of color who can’t afford to post bail.

“In St. Louis, everybody knows about the Workhouse,” says Inez Bordeaux, 37, a lead organizer in the campaign. “Everybody knows at least one person who’s been there, so we’ve all heard the stories about how bad it is.” The stories, she acknowledges, were not atypical for American jails: food not fit for animals and callous guards. Bordeaux says it wasn’t until she spent 30 days in the facility on a probation violation, unable to afford bail, that she realized, “It’s so much worse than everything that I have ever heard.”

Protesters outside the Workhouse last summer. Since then, the jail’s conditions have been the subject of numerous protests, complaints, a lawsuit, and now a new campaign calling for its closure.
Daniel Shular

Built in 1966, the Workhouse is one of two jails in St. Louis, and holds prisoners accused of less serious crimes. It can hold 1,138 people, and has an annual budget of around $16 million. In March, it housed 557 prisoners, according to the city Department of Public Safety’s monthly report. The jail’s nickname is said to come from an 1848 city ordinance ordering prisoners who could not pay their fines to be committed to the “Work House” to pay off their debts.

Nearly all the people held at the Workhouse have not been convicted of crimes; they are awaiting trial, and most cannot afford to post bail in the interim. There are seven times more Black detainees than there are white detainees, although only 47 percent of St. Louis’s population is Black.

The Workhouse is not new to scrutiny. In 2007, the Eastern Missouri branch of the American Civil Liberties Union investigated both St. Louis jails, and released a report detailing squalid conditions, policy violations, overcrowding, negligence, staff assaults on detainees, and systematic cover-up of incidents by staff and administrators.

Now, a decade later, ArchCity Defenders say many of the same problems persist. The firm has filed a federal lawsuit against the city alleging that conditions in the Workhouse are inhumane and violate prisoners’ civil rights. “On any given day, detainees in the jail must endure infestations of rats, snakes, cockroaches, and other insects; extreme temperatures ranging from stifling heat in the summers to frigid cold in the winters; inconsistent and inadequate provision of medical care and mental health treatment; poor air quality and proliferation of mold caused by the jail’s lack of ventilation and inadequate sanitation; overcrowding; insufficient staffing; and a culture of fear created by frequent violence and retaliation, including by jail staff,” it states.

Bordeaux says the lawsuit makes sense. “You’re not even treated with basic human decency,” she said. For her, the most dehumanizing incident came when a guard told her to roll up toilet paper as a makeshift sanitary napkin when supplies reportedly ran out. The slightest protest, she says, meant being locked in her cell for a day to teach her a lesson. “No one should have to deal with that. There’s nothing decent about the Workhouse,” said Bordeaux. “It’s a truly desperate place.”

Last year, state Representative Joshua Peters (D-St. Louis), whose district is home to the Workhouse, organized a bipartisan tour of the jail after receiving letters from his constituents complaining about its conditions. He concluded that some of St. Louis’s “poorest citizens are doomed to a hellish existence” while confined there pretrial. Echoing other Missourians, Peters says the Workhouse has loomed over the community for decades. “Since I was a little child, I remember people saying, ‘You never want to go to the Workhouse.’ It was the worst jail in the metropolitan area in the city of St. Louis.”

He said he witnessed sewage leaking from toilets and that the jail’s kitchen reeked of the stench of mold buildup. Prisoners had to take their food back to their dorms. One prisoner yelled he had been bitten by a rodent, lifting his pant leg to reveal a gaping hole. The prison also showed signs of structural damage in need of repair, Peters said. “I noticed that one of the cells, there may have been about 50 men who were in the infirmary waiting to be seen by a doctor; they only had one doctor on staff and one nurse’s aide.” 

After the protests go on for more than two hours, police come out in riot gear and call the demonstration an unlawful gathering. They give a 10-minute warning to protesters to disperse.
Daniel Shular

Corrections Commissioner Dale Glass and Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards said complaints of inhumane conditions were false and in March of this year invited members of the media into the jail, where a correspondent for Fox2News reported that “inmates appeared as content as one could be in a jail.” Edwards agreed the facility was old, but said it was functional. “We take great pride in making sure that it’s clean, that the inmates are treated humanely,” Glass said in an interview with the station. The commissioner did not respond to The Appeal’s requests for comment.

In addition to the jail conditions, lawyers and organizers say too many people spend too much time in the jail for minor offenses because they can’t afford bail. “The court is setting bail so high that people who are poor and do not have the money to pay it, are being incarcerated pretrial even though a significant number of the cases are resulting in dismissals by the state or not-guilty verdicts,” said Mary Fox, lead public defender in St. Louis. It’s not uncommon for her clients to be held on $1,000 bail and be required to pay 10 percent down, but unable to come up with the $100. Even more typically, Fox’s clients are held on $5,000 bail, making it impossible for them to come up with the 10 percent needed to get out.

Bordeaux was one of the hundreds of detainees unable to afford bail. While on probation for overdrawing on unemployment benefits, she was detained for failing to report to her probation officer and held in the Workhouse, with bail set at $25,000. Bordeaux, who had been living in transitional housing, says she didn’t have the 10 percent that was due; $2,500 was more than her monthly salary at that time. She waited, and on the 30th day, the judge released her. “So, I basically sat there 30 days for nothing.”

Fox says her office isn’t receiving evidence about her clients in a timely manner, which prolongs their jail stays. In April, she filed a petition for a writ of mandamus claiming that Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s prosecutors have been consistently violating a Missouri Supreme Court rule requiring the “timely” disclosure of evidence. Gardner’s office is seeking a dismissal of that complaint. “We just want them to follow the rules,” Fox told The Appeal. The St. Louis public defender’s office is overloaded with cases, she said, and poor people are waiting for representation, which means pretrial detainees who can’t afford bail sit in jail even longer.  

Organizers want the circuit attorney to do more than release evidence; they want her to stop locking people up for being poor and to follow through on her campaign promises. In 2017, with the support of social justice progressives, Gardner became St. Louis’s first Black circuit attorney, sending a wave of hope through the city. While some activists are still optimistic about her potential, others are disappointed that she hasn’t done more.

“She keeps sending people to the Workhouse. It’s her office that keeps requesting these high bails … it’s her!” Bordeaux said. “If she wanted to, she could literally decide to just stop sending people to the Workhouse … stop demanding these high, high bails that keep people locked up in the Workhouse, but she hasn’t done that.”

Kayla Reed of the St. Louis Action Council agreed that Gardner’s tenure has been disappointing. “What we’re hopeful for is that she’s been reflective of that and is making adjustments.” Her recent decision to dismiss some low-level drug possession cases is a good sign, Reed said. “Perhaps it’s her saying, ‘I feel comfortable in my position, I’m going to do more.’”

In a statement, Gardner said reducing incarceration rates is essential to creating a fairer criminal justice system in St. Louis. “People should not linger in jail simply because they are poor,” she wrote. “Being held in jail, even just for a few days, can have a devastating impact on a person’s life.” She says she has already undertaken the “enormous task” of reforming aspects of the criminal justice system she can influence and has partnered with organizations including the Vera Institute of Justice to research the use of bail and possible reforms.  She plans to announce new changes within the next two months.

Meanwhile, the Close the Workhouse campaign plans to hold its first big action in the next few weeks, calling for community reinvestment, the closure of the facility and decarceration in general. The organizers want to see a complete overhaul of the way the circuit attorney asks for bail, including the use of more precharge diversion programs for nonviolent crimes like trespassing, shoplifting and panhandling.

The city is spending all this money on a failing jail when there’s really no reason to keep any of these folks locked up pretrial,” says Janos Marton, a consultant on the campaign, who formerly managed the #CLOSErikers campaign for JustLeadershipUSA. Marton sees some parallels between the two campaigns, which he says are fueled by the energy of directly impacted people.

In both cases,” he said, “there is no argument that the jails are working, only a lack of imagination from certain elected officials about how to reduce the number of people they are jailing.”

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