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Illinois Banned a Prized ICE Program. Why Are So Few Blue States Doing the Same?

Also today: How an attorney general candidate wants to reform criminal justice

The Appeal: Political Report

In This Edition of the Political Report

September 5, 2019:

  • Mississippi: How a candidate for attorney general hopes to reform criminal justice: “We won’t have people stacked on top of one another in prisons, in cages”

  • Illinois bans prized ICE program, but movement is slow elsewhere

  • Massachusetts organizers launch petition drive to abolish felony disenfranchisement

  • Pennsylvania: Larry Krasner’s office reforms youth justice, obtains exonerations

  • Virginia candidates endorse prospect of progressive alliance

You can always visit our interactive tracker of major legislative developments, our interactive tracker of the politics of prosecutors, and our portal on local elections happening in 2019.

Mississippi: How a candidate for attorney general hopes to reform criminal justice

As executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi from 2013 through June, Jennifer Riley Collins worked to reform Mississippi’s criminal legal system. Now, she is running as the Democratic nominee to be the state’s next attorney general. 

That office that represents the state in court, among other duties. But Collins frames her bid as a continuation of her work as an advocate. “My interest has always been in protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States, protecting and defending the constitutional rights of all its citizens,” she told me. “If our Constitution and our laws say that a person has that right, I want to make sure that that right is evenly applied across the board.”

In a wide-ranging conversation, I talked to Collins what this commitment looks like when it comes to issues that involve the criminal legal system, and what an attorney general could actually do.

Mississippi has one of the country’s highest incarceration rates. While DAs and law enforcement officers are generally independent of the attorney general’s office, Collins said she would focus on training them to detain fewer people, so as to free up resources for community services and treatment. “Being hard on crime is not the best approach, because we are throwing people away, we are impacting entire communities,” she said. “I think as I begin to set the standard for how we are going to approach criminal justice as Mississippi’s top cop, you will see the narrative begin to shift as well. … Doing the same thing that we have done, being hard on crime, has already proven not to work, so why do we continue to do that?”

“If we’re working with law enforcement who could have issued a person a summons instead of putting that person in jail, if we’re working with prosecutors,” she added, “then we’re dealing with the drivers of overincarceration, and we won’t have people stacked on top of one another in prisons, in cages.”

On issue upon issue, Collins made the case that inadequate funding for public services—be it teacher salaries, Medicaid expansion, mental health services, or jail conditions—is feeding overincarceration and creating collateral crises. “We need to make sure that our teachers are receiving a wage so they’re not having to work two or three jobs, so that they’re tired and end up trying to push zero-tolerance policies which drive children out of schools, and we know that everyday that they’re outside the learning environment is a day they are more likely to end up in the prison system,” she said. “All of those things connect, none of them are in isolation.”

Part of her approach, she added, would involve using the attorney general’s platform to publicize lawmakers’ budgetary decisions. “If we want to fix what’s going on in jails,” she said, “beat up on the people who are controlling the budget.”

We also discussed the terrible conditions in state prisons (she called them a “direct result of our reliance on overincarceration”), Mississippi’s restrictive disenfranchisement rules, and DA misconduct in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Curtis Flowers case

If elected, Collins would become the first Black politician to hold statewide office in the state since Reconstruction, according to the Jackson Free Press. Mississippi is the state with the highest share of African Americans. It has a long history of voter suppression and intimidation, and Jim Crow-era laws are still weighing on the present campaign.

“I say it is time for us to take a seat that is already at the table so that we can inform laws and policies that are impacting everyone at the table, not a contingent of Mississippi,” she said, quoting Shirley Chisholm’s call for people to “bring a folding chair.”

Collins secured the Democratic nomination to replace outgoing Attorney General Jim Hood in August. She will face off against Republican nominee Lynn Fitch, who is currently the state’s treasurer, in November. 

Our full interview with Jennifer Riley Collins is available here.

Illinois bans prized ICE program, but movement is slow elsewhere

Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a law that bans county governments in Illinois from contracting into ICE’s prized 287(g) program, which deputizes local officers to act as federal immigration agents. 

“Illinois is traditionally a welcome state for immigrants,” said Fred Tsao, a senior policy counsel for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “We and many of our allies have done a pretty good job organizing immigrant communities to have a voice in state level policy.” 

Tsao added that the 287(g) program stretches the duties of local law enforcement, and harms residents’ trust in and ability to turn to local authorities. Immigrants’ rights advocates have made a similar case elsewhere, to some political success, from Arkansas to Maryland. “It creates a climate of fear, particularly for the Latino community and communities of color,” Jose Perez, the deputy general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, told the Appeal: Political Report in October.

There was already no Illinois county in the 287(g) program when the law passed. But there may have been one soon: Sheriff Bill Prim had applied last year for McHenry County (a GOP-leaning area north of Chicago) to join. The law effectively interrupts that application. 

Prim already detains people arrested by ICE in the county jail he runs. In 2017, he faced multiple lawsuits for not releasing individuals based on ICE’s requests not to; the lawsuits were later dismissed. Illinois had just adopted the Trust Act, which prohibits local authorities from honoring ICE detainers, which are warrantless requests.

The state’s new legislation (House Bill 1637) extends the Trust Act by prohibiting another form of cooperation with ICE, 287(g) contracts. Less than 3 percent of all counties nationwide have joined the program—a decision that is often, but not always, in the hands of county sheriffs—so membership remains an unusually tight relationship. 

California adopted a ban against these contracts in 2017, soon after President Trump’s election. But the reform has not taken off since as a staple of lawmaking in Democratic states, let alone in states under divided or Republican control, at least not until this Illinois law.

This year, Colorado Governor Jared Polis threatened to veto a bill this year unless its sponsors removed a ban on 287(g) contracts. There was no legislative movement elsewhere. In New York, not only did the Democratic legislature not pass a proposed ban this year, but the Republican sheriff who signed the state’s only 287(g) contract is coasting to re-election unopposed this fall. 

And in Massachusetts, where Democrats enjoy a veto-proof legislative majority, lawmakers have repeatedly ignored or killed the Safe Communities Act, which includes a measure that would ban 287(g) within the state. Massachusetts is one of just three states (alongside Arizona and Georgia) with a statewide 287(g) contract through its Department of Corrections, which runs state prisons. The DOC, which is run by an appointee of Republican Governor Charlie Baker, renewed its contract this summer. 

Meanwhile, Illinois adopted a separate bill, besides the ban on 287(g) contracts: House Bill 2040 prohibits privately run immigration detention centers. “We will not allow private entities to profit off of the intolerance of this president,” Governor Pritzker said in June.

Tsao of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights called for broader action against detaining immigrants. “Our view is that people shouldn’t be detained, period,” he said. “Let’s allow people to be in the community if they’re asylum seekers with no place to go, let’s provide them with communities of care where they can be better integrated. We should not be doing this, and especially not for profit.”

The full, standalone version of this article is available here.

Massachusetts organizers launch petition drive to abolish felony disenfranchisement

The nationwide movement to abolish felony disenfranchisement is entering a new phase in Massachusetts. Attorney General Maura Healey has certified a citizen-initiated petition drive filed by the MASS Power coalition. This sets the stage for the coalition to start collecting signatures in the coming weeks. They only have until Nov. 20 to collect 80,000 signatures; if they do, the earliest the initiative could make the ballot is 2022.

I reported in February on the multipronged efforts to enable people to vote from prison in Massachusetts, as well as on the state’s sordid history with disenfranchisement. At the time, the legislature was still considering a constitutional amendment, but the measure was soon killed by a committee in a secret vote.

“We do not want to depend on the action or inaction of legislators who have largely shown themselves to be either cowardly or disinterested in the matter,” Austin Frizzell, an organizer with MASS Power, told me. “With the issue of voting rights for incarcerated people getting national attention, we do want to capitalize on this moment but also recognize that such issues make that national stage because organizers are out there making these issues pressing and salient. The referendum process also gets us out into the communities we live in to challenge the idea that disenfranchisement is inherently part of prison.”

Pennsylvania: Larry Krasner’s office reforms youth justice, obtains exonerations  

Over the last week, two publications probed the effects of reforms adopted by Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner:

  1. The Appeal reports that the number of minors charged as adults was halved in Krasner’s first year in office. His staff uses its charging discretion to circumvent the state’s requirement that minors be automatically treated as adults when charged with certain offenses. Krasner said he would support eliminating automatic adult prosecution, as Oregon did this summer. 
  2. CBS News reports on a string of nine exonerations by the county’s Conviction Integrity Unit. “There was a culture at various times of win at all cost,” Krasner, who strengthened the unit’s mission of investigating wrongful convictions, told CBS. “And if that meant that you were gonna take the document that suggested there was a different suspect, a document that the Constitution requires you, as a prosecutor, to turn over to the defense, and you were gonna shred it, you did.”

Earlier this year, an academic study measured the effects of Krasner’s bail reform.

Virginia: Candidates endorse prospect of progressive alliance, though dearth of competitive races limit its potential scope

Jim Hingeley, who is running for prosecutor in Albemarle County, told me in a Q&A last week that he would look to form an alliance with other reform prosecutors to counter the “regressive” politics of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys. “If I’m elected and other progressive prosecutors are elected, we would be small in number, but we can constitute a different voice,” he said. Instances of such state-level alliances by reform prosecutors have popped up in recent years, but they remain few and far between, in contrast with the lobbying of state prosecutors’ associations.

The two candidates Hingeley named as prospective allies both replied to the Q&A by tweeting their support for such an alliance, and for Hingeley: Parisa Dehghani-Tafti (Arlington County) and Steve Descano (Fairfax County). Dehghani-Tafti is certain to win in November; Descano faces Jonathan Fahey, an independent who is running against the overhaul Descano has promised.

One obstacle to broadening the ranks of reform-minded prosecutors is that electoral competition is often confined to larger, more (sub)urban, counties. Here are my calculations of Virginia: 

  • Of the 11 jurisdictions with more than 100,000 residents with elections this year, seven feature multiple candidates on the November ballot (64 percent). 

  • Of the 42 jurisdictions with fewer than 30,000 residents, only 12 do (29 percent).

In all four states with multiple DA races this year (Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia), a majority feature just one candidate—often an unchallenged incumbent.

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