Efforts to Abolish the Death Penalty Triumph in the South for the First Time

The Appeal: Political Report’s March 25 newsletter


March 25, 2021

  • Virginia abolished the death penalty yesterday, a historic win for the abolition movement

  • The future of immigration enforcement: Biden replaced Trump. Here’s why that does not mean that local law enforcement should cooperate with ICE again.

  • Pennsylvania: As his election nears, The Appeal dives into Larry Krasner’s DA record

  • Legislative roundup: Utah repeals its bail reforms and restricts the public release of mugshots, Kentucky raises the felony theft threshold, and Maryland may end life without parole sentences for children

  • Louisiana: Here’s one illustration of how the 2020 local elections changed New Orleans

  • Longer reads: on prosecutors, probation, voting rights, mayors, and immigration 

In case you missed it, catch up with last week’s Political Report newsletter. You can also visit our interactive tracker of legislative developments and our interactive tracker of the latest reforms being implemented by prosecutors nationwide.


Virginia abolished the death penalty yesterday, a historic win for the abolition movement

This is a historic week for the movement against the death penalty in the United States. Virginia, the state that has executed the most people throughout the nation’s history, has abolished the sentence and vacated its death row. 

This brings abolition into the South for the first time, which could well be remembered as a landmark moment for broadening the scope of abolition. Virginia, which in recent years has adopted other reforms such as ending life without parole sentences for minors, is the fourth state in four years to abolish the death penalty.

Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reported on this milestone yesterday in The Appeal: Political Report.


The future of immigration enforcement: Biden replaced Trump. Here’s why that does not mean that local law enforcement should cooperate with ICE again.

The Biden administration has shifted from former President Donald Trump’s approach to deportations, instructing ICE to only prioritize some groups for deportation. And Biden has also shed his predecessor’s naked xenophobia. That may in turn lead some local officials—starting with those in charge of law enforcement and prosecution—to say that it is now appropriate for them to resume cooperating with ICE, offsetting the activist successes of recent years.

Felipe De La Hoz lays out in the Political Report this week why local cooperation with ICE will continue to harm immigrant communities regardless of the president’s t guidelines.

Priorities set by the president are often ignored by ICE and turn carve-out balloons into open invitations, de la Hoz explains. Even low-level interactions with the criminal legal system can snowball into deportation proceedings. De La Hoz also talks to local officials including Eli Savit, the new prosecutor in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Kristin Graziano, the new sheriff in Charleston County, South Carolina, who are doubling down on cutting ties with ICE this year even after Biden took over the White House.


The Appeal dives into Larry Krasner’s DA record

In 2017, civil rights attorney Larry Krasner became one of the nation’s most emblematic district attorneys after running on promises to reduce incarceration. More than three years into his term, and as Krasner prepares to face voters in the May 18 primary, The Appeal’s Joshua Vaughn reports this week on his record as DA and how his promises to reduce incarceration have fared.

“He has prosecuted significantly fewer cases than his predecessors,” Vaughn writes. “He has reduced the use of cash bail and limited parole and probation terms. And he has reinvigorated his office’s conviction integrity unit.” Krasner has also faced criticism, including from people on the left who urge him to be more transformative since “his office still seeks cash bail and asks that people convicted of certain crimes be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.”

But one of Krasner’s most important legacies, Vaughn writes, may be to have blazed the trail for other progressives to run for the prosecutor’s office around the country, setting in motion broader transformations—the sort we are now seeing in New Orleans, for instance, as chronicled below.


Legislative roundup: Utah repeals its bail reforms and restricts the public release of mugshots, Kentucky raises the felony theft threshold, and Maryland may end life without parole sentences for children

Utah: Utah has repealed the bail reform it adopted in 2020, which may ramp up pretrial detention. Governor Spencer Cox signed a bill this week despite his earlier statements indicating he may veto it. As Rachel Cohen reported last week in The Appeal: Political Report, the 2020 law encouraged judges to opt for the least restrictive mode of detention they deemed adequate, and reduce the reliance on cash bail. Some Republican lawmakers and sheriffs had made the case that the new law is too lax, but many others—including the district attorneys of the state’s three biggest counties—urged the governor to veto the repeal, to no avail.

Last week, Cox signed another bill into law: It will bar the public release of mugshots until there is a criminal conviction, with some carve-outs. Route Fifty reported on the bill in February. “The reality is today, in doing so, we hang a virtual scarlet letter around the one that’s been accused or arrested,” said Representative Keven Stratton, the reform’s Republican sponsor, appealing to the presumption of innocence. But the state’s simultaneous choice to lean into pretrial detention threatens that presumption

Kentucky: Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, signed into law this week two bills passed by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature that should reduce the number of people convicted of felonies. One bill increases to $1,000 from $500 the threshold of the value at which theft is prosecuted as a felony rather than a misdemeanor; another bill increases to $2,500 from $1,000 the amount of unpaid child support that can be prosecuted as a felony. A felony-level conviction carries far heavier consequences in terms of sentencing and incarceration, and comes with additional consequences such as a loss of the right to vote. The Lexington Herald Leader provides more context on the legislative session that produced these new laws; other bills are still in limbo.

Maryland: Two bills that address youth justice are moving through the state legislature. The Senate passed a bill this month that concerns how children who are transferred to adult courts are treated. Most notably, it would abolish sentences of life without the possibility of parole for minors. The House, meanwhile, passed a bill that would restrict some punishments imposed in juvenile courts and limit when young children are prosecuted.  

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Louisiana: Here’s one illustration of how the 2020 local elections changed New Orleans

New Orleans is offering a powerful display so far this year of the ability of local elections to change people’s lives. And a recent development that illustrates this stands at the nexus of different threads of electoral activism that the Political Report closely covered last fall.

Act I: In the fall, local activists in New Orleans worked to boost public defenders who were running for judge on promises to use judicial discretion to fight mass incarceration. Two of them won in November, Nandi Campbell and Angel Harris. (Harris is a former employee of The Justice Collaborative, of which The Appeal was a project.)

Act II: In December, a runoff decided the city’s hotly contested open prosecutorial race. Leon Cannizzaro, the incumbent prosecutor with an exceptionally carceral politics, had chosen to not seek re-election. The winner, City Council president Jason Williams, ran on a reform platform that promised to reduce sentences, avoid sentencing enhancements, and review past convictions. He began delivering on some of these promises after taking office.

Act III: Yutilo Briley, a 27-year-old who had just spent the past eight years in prison over a wrongful conviction sought and obtained by Cannizzaro, was released from prison this month. Williams agreed to his releaseand the judge who ordered the release was Harris.

Briley … walked out of the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel and threw his arms around his mother, thanks to a newly elected district attorney and judge who hold sharply different views from their predecessors,” writes Matt Sledge in the New Orleans Advocate. “Instead of fighting Briley at every step, Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams agreed that Briley’s latest appeal should be granted.” Said Harris: “This was a textbook example of the failings of our criminal court system.”


Longer reads: on prosecutors, probation, voting rights, mayors, and immigration

The Stanford Journal of Civil Rights & Civil Liberties devotes a special issue to progressive prosecution. The issue includes an article by the ACLU’s Taylor Pendergrass and Somil Trivedi on how DAs can move “beyond reform,” and an article by California public defenders Avanindar Singh and Sajid Khan that proposes “a public defender definition of progressive prosecution.”

Vincent Shiraldi explains in The Lab, The Appeal’s policy vertical, how the criminal legal system harshly punishes “technical violations” of parole and probation conditions and drives up incarceration.

Kevin Muhitch and Nazgol Ghandnoosh write in the Sentencing Project about why all citizens should be able to cast a ballot.

Damià Bonmatí, reporting for NBC News from Roma, Texas, talks to children and adolescents with wrenching stories who are coming into the United States to find their parents.

Stephanie Murray writes in Politico about six mayoral elections that are being reshaped by the Black Lives Matter protests over policing. 

Virginia Bridges reports in The Herald-Sun that thousands of children under age 11, disproportionately Black children, face criminal complaints each year in North Carolina. One 6-year-old was taken to court, standing accused of picking up a tulip from a yard.