The Politics of Prosecutors
A growing number of prosecutors are reforming their local criminal legal systems, fueled by activists’ calls for change and rising electoral mobilization around district attorney races. Many other prosecutors are fighting reform, whether locally or through statewide lobbying. Some even do both.
The Appeal: Political Report has launched a new interactive page to track how the reform movement is affecting the practices and policies of prosecutors nationwide. What reforms are they rolling out, and are they actually implementing them? Who is more ambitious in their proposals, and who is most resistant to targeting mass incarceration? After all, prosecutors enjoy tremendous discretion, and policies they set—like whether to seek bail, to treat minors as adults, or to prosecute marijuana cases—impact the scale of mass incarceration.
This page is written by Daniel Nichanian. It is not meant to be exhaustive. It tracks developments as covered in the Political Report. You can also follow our coverage specific to elections for prosecutor on this page.
Explore these developments chronologically below, or geographically with this interactive map.
Politics of prosecutors
The Appeal: Political Report is also committed to drawing out and clarifying the politics of prosecutorial elections, and probing what reform means for candidates who run on a platform of curbing or ending mass incarceration. Read our coverage of the 2018 local elections and the 2019 local elections.
San Francisco, California
We should reject the idea that “jails and prisons should be the primary response to all our social problems,” Chesa Boudin said during his inauguration as DA of San Francisco. He also reiterated his campaign commitment to stop the filing of three-strike enhancements. Then, within a week, he rolled out a new pretrial diversion program, under which some people who are the parents or primary caregivers of a child will be eligible for alternatives to incarceration.
Boudin’s initiative implements a new law (Senate Bill 394), which California adopted in October and which authorizes each county to set up such a program to fight family separation. But this creation requires the agreement and cooperation of the local DA, and Boudin’s embrace contrasts with the resistance of other state prosecutors like Los Angeles’s Jackie Lacey.
Queens, New York
Melinda Katz, who became DA on Jan. 7, created a conviction integrity unit that will review claims of wrongful convictions. Queens was the only New York City borough to lack such a unit. She appointed Bryce Benjet, an attorney with the Innocence Project, to head the unit. Katz also changed plea bargaining practices, ending her predecessor’s requirement that people waive their rights to a grand jury in order to enter plea discussions, and also ending restrictions on allowing defendants to plead to anything but the top count of indictment.
Aaron Morrison reported in The Appeal last week, though, that prosecutors were still requesting cash bail despite Katz’s promise to eliminate such recommendations. Katz reiterated this promise in her inauguration speech, but said she was not yet ready to fully implement it.
Baltimore, Maryland and Brooklyn, New York
Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby shared with a state commission a list of 305 officers (nearly 15 percent of the police force) with credibility issues that her office will not call as witnesses. This comes a month after Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez released a partial list of officers accused of dishonesty to Gothamist/WNYC; he would only say that these officers would not be called to testify in cases if they are a “sole witness.”
Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner will divert all simple drug possession, Samantha Melamed reports in the Philadelphia Inquirer: The policy is to “withdraw charges for those who show proof they’re in drug treatment” and “start all possession cases on a diversionary track, connecting defendants to court-accredited treatment providers.” Convictions in such cases are down 45 percent since Krasner became DA, and his office now expects a bigger drop. Critics say implementation has been uneven, and that more should be done to not arrest and not criminalize people for any drug possession.
Ingham and Oakland Counties, Michigan
Since the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life without the possibility of parole for minors, states have had to review the sentences of their juvenile lifers. But Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reports in The Appeal that Oakland County prosecutor Jessica Cooper has asked courts to reimpose the sentence in 43 out of 48 cases eligible for review. The ACLU’s Udi Ofer called this “inhumane and cruel.” By contrast, Ingham County (Lansing) prosecutor Carol Siemon told The Appeal she would never seek life without the possibility of parole sentences for minors. Siemon supported the resentencing of the county’s two juvenile lifers, one of whom was released.
Chittenden County, Vermont
“Prison rape is a longstanding emergency, affecting incarcerated men and women,” Vaidya Gullapalli writes in The Appeal, but “prosecutors were allowed to remain largely oblivious of and indifferent to what happens inside these facilities.” Last week, in response to reporting of allegations of sexual assault by corrections officers at a women’s prison, Chittenden County prosecutor Sarah Fair George said she would review the sentences of people detained there to determine whether to release them. Gullapalli writes that this is noteworthy because it is “not to simply call for punishment for the individual officers but to think about how to take responsibility for the women her office sent there. ”
Thirty-nine elected prosecutors signed a new pledge to visit a prison with their staff last week. Jails and prisons can be “violent and unhealthy places,” the letter states. “We cannot ignore the fact that the conditions we subject people to necessarily impact them, their families, and the health and safety of our communities.” (See also: When I interviewed Vermont prosecutor Sarah Fair George about her policy of requiring that her staff visit prison in August, she described it as a bid to change prosecutorial practices and get her staff to seek less incarceration.)
Suffolk County, Massachusetts
Boston police are using undercover Snapchat accounts, and local advocates say that every instance they have identified involves a Black or Latinx person. A court ordered the police to disclose more information, but local law enforcement as well as the office of Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins have been fighting this order, Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reports in The Appeal.
Douglas County, Kansas and Travis County, Texas
Women who try to report sexual assault in Lawrence, Kansas, are frequently doubted and retraumatized, Katie Bernard reports in a remarkable Kansas City Star story. Bernard found that Douglas County DA Charles Branson has repeatedly charged women with falsely reporting an assault. In Texas, Travis County (Austin) DA Margaret Moore faces a lawsuit that alleges she is mishandling sexual assault incidents, Kira Lerner reports in The Appeal. Branson and Moore are both Democrats up for re-election in 2020.
Franklin and Cuyahoga counties, Ohio
The prosecutors of Ohio’s two biggest counties are staunch death penalty proponents, Joshua Vaughn reports in The Appeal. Ron O’Brien, the Republican DA of Franklin County (Columbus), and Michael O’Malley, the Democratic DA of Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), have frequently asked for the death penalty. (Both are up for re-election in 2020.) This year, they also lobbied against a bipartisan bill that would have banned the death penalty for people with a mental illness at the time of the crime; the bill passed the GOP-run House, then stalled.
Voting rights in Maine and Vermont, and nationally
Each time prosecutors decide whether to charge someone with a felony or a misdemeanor, or whether to offer someone a deal that avoids incarceration, or how long a prison sentence to seek, they are shifting the voting public. But laws in Maine and Vermont do not give public officials discretion to police who should vote.
The Political Report reached out to all the prosecutors in Maine and Vermont, and to Department of Corrections officers, to discuss voting rights. Those who answered either defended prison voting as a boon to the criminal legal system, or shrugged it off as a non-issue.
In response, some prosecutors (as well as DA hopefuls) endorsed ending disenfranchisement or amplified remarks that voting rights can empower incarcerated people, including Marilyn Mosby (Maryland), Rachael Rollins (Massachusetts), Justin Kollar (Hawaii), Parisa Dehghani-Tafti (Virginia), and Larry Krasner (Pennsylvania). “In 2020, let’s recommit to finally severing Jim Crow from our present, including by ending the evils of voter suppression and disenfranchisement,” Krasner tweeted.
Los Angeles County, California
In The Appeal, Jessica Pishko chronicles problems that have surfaced under DA Jackie Lacey’s tenure. Lacey has also opposed numerous statewide reforms; everyone she has sent to death row has been a person of color; and activists fault her failure to hold police accountable. “Over 400 people have been killed by law enforcement or died in custody” during her tenure, Pishko writes, but she “hasn’t charged a single LAPD officer for a shooting.” In June, The Appeal’s Raven Rakia also reported on Lacey’s record toward people with mental illness.
Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana
In Calcasieu Parish, defendants can donate money or a gift card to a foundation set up by DA John DeRosier “in order to buy their way out of community service,” Radley Balko reports in the Washington Post. This was said to have generated hundreds of thousands of dollars for his foundation; DeRosier subsequently distributed those gift cards to friends and supporters.
California, Mississippi, Virginia, and more
The movement to elect prosecutors broke new ground on Tuesday when a wave of decarceral candidates won in suburban or rural counties across the nation.
The Election Day results overhauled Virginia’s landscape in particular, broadening the geography of decarceration. Candidates who ran on reform platforms won in at least four populous counties. Read more on Virginia. You can also read our Q&As with the incoming prosecutors of Albemarle (Jim Hingeley), Arlington (Parisa Dehghani-Tafti), Fairfax (Steve Descano), and Loudoun (Buta Biberaj), and Prince William Counties (Amy Ashworth).
And it’s not just Virginia. Reform candidates secured victories in suburban Pennsylvania and rural Mississippi as well.
In Queens, New York, Melinda Katz won the general election, five months after securing the Democratic nomination. She has pledged to create the borough’s first conviction integrity unit.
In San Francisco, voters elected Chesa Boudin, a public defender who ran on never seeking cash bail, promoting restorative justice and alternatives to incarceration, creating a unit to investigate ICE agents, and not prosecuting so-called qualify of life crimes, among other policies. Read more.
Iberia Parish, Louisiana
Lori Landry, a Black judge in Iberia Parish, criticized the overincarceration of Black Louisianans. Prosecutors in DA Bo Duhé’s office are now trying to get her removed from hundreds of cases for being biased. ” The truth is that people with biases are allowed to serve as judges and jurors in our system, but only if they have the biases considered correct, which means biases in favor of the prosecution,” Sarah Lustbader writes in the Daily Appeal.
Berkshire and Suffolk counties, Massachusetts
Both elected in 2018 on reform platforms, Harrington and Rollins are implementing different pretrial detention policies, The Appeal’s Joshua Vaughn reported. Vaughn identified vast disparities in how often state prosecutors are requesting that someone be detained pretrial on the grounds that they are dangerous. Harrington has overseen a large increase in such requests this year. She attributes this to her policy of mostly ending the use of cash bail, and relying on dangerousness hearings instead. Advocates say that stymies the goal of reducing pretrial detention.
California’s exceptionally punitive gang suppression laws criminalize non-criminal behavior, remove procedural protections at trial, and lengthen prison sentences. A sweeping gang database almost exclusively targets people of color. DAs employ these statutes, though their discretion enables them not to. Emily Galvin-Almanza reports in The Appeal on the use that Los Angeles DA Jackie Lacey is making of these laws.
Salt Lake County, Utah
Salt Lake County DA Sim Gill will retroactively reduce the criminal convictions of about 12,000 people (for some, from the felony to the misdemeanor level). This will expand the pool of people eligible to have their records cleared, just as Utah prepares to implement a “Clean Slate” law that will automate part of its expungement process.
Philadelphia continues to feature some of the country’s biggest DA reforms, and biggest pushbacks. Both were on full display this month.
DA Larry Krasner launched a data transparency initiative: a new website that features daily information on prosecutions. It has yet to include demographic information, which is a crucial reason for transparency demands. But it documents large declines in the volume of prosecutions under Krasner, matching earlier commitments.
This includes a drop of more than 85 percent in the number of retail theft cases charged, and smaller drops in other property crimes charged. His office says the most important finding is the reduction in “future years of incarceration or supervision” (the projected length of sentences served).
Meanwhile, The Intercept’s Akela Lacy reports that the office of Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro encouraged the press to cover Krasner more negatively and raised questions to journalists about his reforms’ safety risks.
Marion County, Indiana
Marion County (home to Indianapolis) joined the growing tide of jurisdictions that will no longer prosecute people for simple marijuana possession. Prosecutor Ryan Mears said Monday that his office is now declining to prosecute if the amount possessed is under one ounce. He announced this after just one week in office. Prosecutor Terry Curry resigned in late September, and a Democratic caucus will soon determine who finishes his term. Mears is one of two main contenders, alongside Tim Moriarty, who works for the Indianapolis mayor. Moriarty said in a statement that he would keep this new policy.
Prosecutors have rolled out similar policies of declining marijuana cases this year in Bexar County, Texas (San Antonio); Jefferson County, Kentucky (Louisville); and St. Louis. But Marilyn Mosby (Baltimore) and Rachael Rollins (Boston) have gone further: Their policy is to decline pot possession cases with no limit on the quantity.
Kern County, California
Kern County DA Cynthia Zimmer and Sheriff Donny Youngblood want to address an increase in homelessness by locking homeless people in jail. The idea is to sentence homeless people to jail for misdemeanor drug offenses or for trespassing, even though such cases do not typically lead to jail or prison anymore, the Los Angeles Times reports. This punitive plan would require other local officials to cooperate. Bakersfield’s city government is considering allocating $300,000 a year for two assistant district attorneys to prosecute these charges rather than issuing tickets. In addition, local judges must be willing to issue the maximum allowable sentence.
Kate Chatfield writes in The Appeal that the Kern County plan would “defy a 1975 state Supreme Court precedent that says law enforcement cannot intentionally discriminate against a person or group of people.”
Alexandria, Virginia, and Jefferson County, Kentucky
A growing number of prosecutors are limiting or ending the prosecution of marijuana possession. The latest to join this trend are in Alexandria, Virginia, and Louisville, Kentucky. The Political Report reviews these reforms, and asks what’s next.
Bryan Porter, the commonwealth’s attorney of Alexandria (in Northern Virginia), announced that people charged with simple marijuana possession will be eligible for pretrial diversion. Read more.
In Jefferson County, Kentucky (home to Louisville), County Attorney Mike O’Connell rolled out a policy of no longer prosecuting people for possessing up to one ounce of marijuana. Read more.
Kauai County, Hawaii
Justin Kollar, the chief prosecutor of Kauai County, rolled out a new policy to lessen penalties for driving without a license or insurance. These offenses are often linked to poverty and an inability to pay court debt, which triggers license suspensions. Elsewhere in the country, some DAs have gone a step further: They have said they are altogether declining to prosecute cases of driving on a suspended license when the suspension is due to unpaid debt. Read more in the Political Report.
Prince George’s County, Maryland
Aisha Braveboy, the state’s attorney of Prince George’s County, announced in a speech that she would no. longer seek cash bail as a condition of release. Reform advocates express optimism about the reform in the Washington Post. They also note implementation will be crucial. Reducing pretrial detention will depend on the judges who actually set bond, and who could deny people pretrial release. Also, what replaces cash bail will matter greatly. Read more in the Political Report.
Harris County, Texas
U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal gave preliminary approval last week to a settlement that restructures the bail system in Texas’s Harris County, home of Houston. And she did it over the objections of Harris County DA Kim Ogg. Rosenthal offered a stern rebuke of Ogg’s bid to stop the settlement by reviving the Willie Horton strategy. She wrote in her ruling that briefs filed against the settlement, including Ogg’s, were “essentially an argument for incarcerating every arrestee and defendant until trial or other disposition.” Read more in the Appeal: Political Report.
St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner is trying to vacate a murder conviction because of prosecutorial and police misconduct. A long list of issues in Lamar Johnson’s 1995 trial was uncovered by a conviction integrity unit (CIU), and 43 reform-minded prosecutors filed an amicus brief in support of Gardner. But a judge has refused to grant Gardner’s motion for a new trial, arguing that a circuit attorney has no such authority and that deadlines long expired. The Appeal’s Vaidya Gullapalli reminds us that few prosecutors set up CIUs, and those that do face intense blowback.
Earlier this year, a study measured the effects of Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner’s bail reform. Now, two publications probed the effects of other reforms adopted by Krasner:
The Appeal reports that the number of minors charged as adults was halved in Krasner’s first year in office. Joshua Vaughn found that Krasner’s staff uses its charging discretion to circumvent the state’s requirement that minors be automatically treated as adults when charged with certain offenses. Krasner also said he would support eliminating automatic adult prosecution, as Oregon did this summer.
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,” said Krasner, who strengthened the unit’s mission of investigating wrongful convictions. “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.”
In a speech at the Fraternal Order of Police conference on Monday, U.S. Attorney General William Barr delivered a wide-ranging attack against efforts for police oversight and against reform-minded prosecutors, whom he called “anti-law enforcement DAs.” Read the annotated and fact-checked version of the speech in The Appeal.
In addition, Fordham Law School professor John Pfaff writes in The Appeal that “Barr is out of step with the data and the desires of the people who have elected progressive prosecutors.”
Fair and Just Prosecution, an organization that advocates for criminal justice reform, released a statement answering Barr signed by 30 current elected prosecutors, who fault him for “using rhetoric that harkens back to the parochial ‘tough on crime’ narrative of past decades that stoked fear and impeded progress.”
And a Virginia candidate and two sitting prosecutors published a joint op-ed in the Washington Post that offers a manifesto of sorts for reform prosecutors.
Harris County, Texas
Harris County (Houston) is on the verge of restructuring its bail system, but DA Kim Ogg just threw a wrench in the planned reform. To recap: A federal judge struck down the county’s bail rules for misdemeanors in 2017, and this year officials unveiled a settlement that expands public defense services and provides for the pretrial release of most people arrested for misdemeanors. But last week Ogg filed a legal brief objecting to the settlement, in part over its perceived leniency toward defendants. Audia Jones, who is challenging Ogg in the county’s 2020 DA race, told The Appeal in March that she was “all for” the settlement, and would favor also reforming bail for felonies.
King County, Washington
Seattle has steadily moved toward decriminalizing drugs, and Nick Kristof writes in the New York Times about the policies implemented by local officials, including Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, to promote a public health response to addiction. “Anyone caught here with a small amount of drugs — even heroin — isn’t typically prosecuted. Instead, that person is steered toward social services to get help,” Kristof writes. A program launched in 2011 to divert people toward treatment was expanded last year when Satterberg announced he would stop prosecuting possession of less than one gram of any drug.
Santa Clara County, California
The office of Santa Clara County DA Jeff Rosen announced that it will decline to prosecute many cases of simple drug possession. It will seek drug possession charges if they deem it accompanied by other offenses, or if it is a person’s third offense within 12 months, and otherwise dismiss charges. In 2018, about 4,500 cases were prosecuted that fit the criteria of cases that will now be declined; that’s 13 percent of all cases charged last year. “We are drawing the line between public health and public safety,” Brian Buckelew, a supervising deputy DA, told KPIX. “The people can get a higher degree of treatment without the stigma, without the conviction, without everything else.”
Orange and Osceola Counties, Florida
State Attorney Aramis Ayala has a new policy meant to reduce prosecutions for drug possession. Prosecuting drug possession “has failed to reduce levels of drug use, dramatically increased the number of individuals incarcerated,” she said in a statement. The policy sets up conditions to outright dismiss drug charges: People need to complete a one-hour course for lower-level charges (including possession of marijuana) to be dropped; for possessing drugs other than marijuana, people need to complete a course and community service, and not be rearrested for six months. People may still be diverted toward rehabilitative services if they don’t fulfill those conditions.
Prosecutors who over the last year have announced policies to not prosecute possession of some drugs other than marijuana include Kim Foxx (Chicago), Sarah Fair George (Burlington, Vermont), and Rachael Rollins (Boston). Implementation of such policies is always crucial since prosecutorial discretion remains strong. For instance, these policies generally apply to simple possession, which means possession is not accompanied by another offense. But a prosecutor could respond by making more frequent use of other charges to circumvent it.
Chittenden County, Vermont
Sarah Fair George, prosecutor of Chittenden County (Burlington), has instructed all staff and prosecutors who work in her office to visit the St. Albans prison.
The Political Report talked to George about her initiative, and how it might could change practices in her office. “They spent an hour and a half there and were relieved to get out,” she said. “So let’s imagine how this might impact somebody who is there for six months or a year.”
George said this perspective could curb prosecutors’ reflex to seek incarceration. Read the interview.
Janos Marton, who is running to be Manhattan DA, tweeted approval, as did Justin Kollar, the prosecutor of Hawaii’s Kauai County. “Jail has a visceral impact on all of the senses, and serves as a reminder of the callousness and racism embedded in our criminal legal system,” Marton said. Read more.
Cook County, Illinois
A new report shows that reforms implemented by Kim Foxx are paying dividends for decarceration in Cook County. The number of people sentenced to prison or jail declined by 19 percent between 2017 and 2018. Violent crime also declined over that period. Since 2016, Foxx has shifted to using lower-level charges for some offenses. She announced that she would prosecute retail theft as a felony if the value of the property is above $1,000, as opposed to $300 previously. This year, she set a presumption of no incarceration for drug possession charges.
See also: In a large-scale data investigation in Oct. 2019, Matt Daniels took advantage of an unusual data disclosure to assess the scope of Foxx’s reforms. He finds that, since Foxx took office in 2016, her office has declined felony charges in more than 5,000 cases that her predecessor Anita Alvarez would have likely prosecuted at the felony level. This is due to a mix of dropping cases, shifting them to lower misdemeanor charges, and diverting them toward treatment programs. For one, she has dismissed more drug cases than Alvarez; the jump is starkest for the more severe charges like trafficking. For non-drug offenses, Daniels looks only at whether cases were filed as felonies, and finds that “felony prosecutions are trending down for nearly every offense category,” except gun charges.
Cuyahoga County, Ohio
A coalition of local organizations sent a letter to Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) Prosecutor Michael O’Malley demanding that he curb the use of cash bail. “Jailing people who cannot pay bail discriminates against the poor, and it exposes them to needless suffering and even death,” they write.
San Diego, California
The office of San Diego DA Summer Stephan is systematically resisting reforms adopted by California’s legislature. Let’s review:
1) A law adopted in 2018 enables judges to divert people with mental health issues away from incarceration. But the San Diego Union-Tribune reported last week that Stephan’s office has argued against nearly all diversion requests (95 percent), even though a tiny share of all defendants have made one (0.2 percent of all arraignments). This near-constant opposition to diversion contrasts with Los Angeles; prosecutors there argued against 33 percent of diversion requests over the period reviewed by the Union-Tribune.
2) Stephan is also among the California DAs challenging the constitutionality of another 2018 law, which restricted the felony murder doctrine, and did so retroactively. DA resistance is delaying the resentencing of hundreds.
3) Stephan is even fighting still-nonexistent reforms. The Union-Tribune reported that, as part of plea deal negotiations, Stephan’s office is asking some defendants to forfeit their right to seek a revised sentence based on hypothetical future reforms, even if those are intended to modify past sentences. Assistant DA David Greenberg, who is quoted in each of the articles linked here, defended this waiver in the name of “truth in sentencing.”
Democratic Governor David Ige vetoed bills reforming Hawaii’s criminal legal system, including a measure to restrict civil asset forfeiture. Mitch Roth, the Hawaii County prosecutor, and Keith Kaneshiro, the Honolulu County prosecutor, urged these vetoes; Roth said he “doesn’t know of a single case” in which asset forfeiture has been abused. “There’s longstanding deference to police and law enforcement in our state,” said Mandy Fernandes, policy director of the ACLU of Hawaii. But Justin Kollar, prosecutor of Kauai County, voiced support for reform. Read more in the Political Report.
The Political Report reported in April on a Massachusetts bill that would raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 21 from 18. The idea now has prosecutorial support: Three of 11 DAs have endorsed it: Andrea Harrington, Rachael Rollins, and David Sullivan. “By pushing these young people, who research tells us are still developing, into the adult justice system, we are willfully ignoring decades of data and developmental science,” Rollins tweeted.
Only Vermont has raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction above 18.
In legalizing hemp this year, Texas distinguished it from marijuana based on THC concentration: If a product has more than 0.3 percent THC, it is defined as marijuana and is illegal. But an unintended consequence is that marijuana cases now require knowing a product’s THC level, and many DAs say they lack the resources and capacity to make this determination. The DA’s statewide association echoed their warning.
At least five DAs (in Bexar, Harris, Fort Bend, Nueces, and Tarrant counties) have announced that they will no longer prosecute marijuana cases absent a THC concentration test. These DAs have also dismissed hundreds of marijuana cases since the law came into effect in June. Governor Greg Abbott and other GOP officials are contesting this.
They say pot prosecutions can proceed “with the tried-and-true use of circumstantial evidence.” But Dallas County DA John Creuzot replied his duty is “to ensure that people are not prosecuted for possessing substances that are legal.”
Most DAs in the state’s largest counties are staking a position like Creuzot’s. Exceptions are El Paso’s Jaime Esparza, a Democrat, and Montgomery County’s Brett Ligon Brett Ligon, a Republican. Asked how Ligon’s office would prove a substance is marijuana, a spokesperson told the Political Report that they have identified a private lab capable of conducting tests in Arlington, and that they would order a test only if a case goes to trial (which is rare) or if defendants request it in cases disposed of pretrial.
Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner has asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to declare that the death penalty violates the state’s Constitution, Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reports in The Appeal.
Also, a new law enables the state attorney general to prosecute firearm violations in Philadelphia. The move, which dilutes Krasner’s authority, applies only to Philly and expires in two years, right when Krasner’s current term ends. The GOP sponsor implied to The Intercept that he was motivated by his view that Krasner, who has used probationary programs, was not “enforcing the law.” Democratic Governor Tom Wolf signed the bill into law. In response to the controversy, Attorney General Josh Shapiro tweeted that he did not plan “to use it to act unilaterally or go around DA Krasner.”
Miami-Dade County, Florida
Some of Florida’s Democratic prosecutors are developing plans to mitigate the state’s “poll tax” law, which Republicans adopted this spring to require that people pay off their court fines and fees before regaining the right to vote. Kira Lerner and Daniel Nichanian report in The Appeal that a coalition of Miami-Dade County officials is now saying that most people with felony convictions are likely to be able to vote, despite owing fines and fees. The group includes Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.
Her office is talking to prosecutors elsewhere in the state. The offices of the state attorneys in Broward, Hillsborough, and Palm Beach counties confirmed their interest in a process that would get as many people voting as possible.
Queens, New York
Prosecutorial practices were harsher in Queens than elsewhere in the city under Richard Brown, the DA between 1991 and 2019. “If there is room for reform anywhere in the boroughs of New York City, it’s in Queens more than anywhere else,” said Aaron Morrison, a reporter with The Appeal. Morrison has reported in The Appeal on the harsh practices that Brown’s office pursued toward people on probation and parole. He also reported on the lack of a conviction integrity unit. Such units resulted in roughly 60 exonerations nationwide last year. Queens is the only New York City borough without one. Queens is elected a new DA this year.
Cumberland County, Pennsylvania
A new DA in Cumberland County is treating the overdose crisis as a criminal matter rather than a community health issue, Josh Vaughn reports in The Appeal. DA Skip Ebert is choosing to aggressively charge people with homicide if they provide others drugs which they overdose. Ebert casts this strategy as essential to proper punishment and deterrence, but advocates argue that he is targeting friends and family members rather than kingpins and drug dealers, and they point out that his policies dissuade people from calling 911 during overdoses.
Orleans Parish, Louisiana
Leon Cannizzaro, the DA of Orleans Parish,, is the subject of an Intercept investigation on how his office is undermining defendants’ right to counsel, as well as of an Appeal investigation on the harmful effects of his office’s handling of jailhouse informants. Cannizzaro is known for harsh practices. Last month, he said he would pursue a more punitive approach toward minors, even as New Orleans’s youth jail faces overcrowding, Kira Lerner reports in The Appeal.
St. Louis County, Missouri
Wesley Bell, the prosecutor of St. Louis County, is creating a Conviction and Incident Review Unit to investigate police shootings and allegations of misconduct. In 2018, Bell ousted incumbent Bob McCulloch, whose refusal to appoint an independent prosecutor after Michael Brown’s shooting contributed to the 2014 Ferguson protests. The Intercept reports that the board’s mechanics are still uncertain. The board will also review claims of wrongful conviction.
The Philadelphia Bail Fund released a report showing Philadelphia prosecutors seek high bail amounts, and questioning the speed at which Larry Krasner’s office is reforming bail, Bryce Covert reports in The Appeal. “It indicates there’s room to move forward and do more,” Krasner’s office told Covert.
Chicago and San Francisco
Kim Foxx, the prosecutor of Cook County, Illinois (Chicago) and George Gascón, the prosecutor of San Francisco, California, have each launched new initiatives to improve their office’s transparency and release years worth of prosecutorial data. Sarah Lustbader writes in the Daily Appeal that this is part of a new transparency wave.
The Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of Curtis Flowers because of the racially discriminatory jury selection practices of DA Doug Evans. The court stressed how unique the case was, but Sarah Lustbader explains that what makes this case so important is that it is anything but an outlier. (Evans is running unopposed this year.) See also: In November 2019, civil rights groups filed a proposed class action lawsuit against Evans for illegaly striking Black jurors
As draconian restrictions on reproductive rights spread nationwide, some Georgia DAs like DeKalb County’s Sherry Boston say they will not use prosecute people using these new laws; others like Gwinnett County’s Danny Porter say they would specifically not prosecute women who seek an abortion.
Sarah Lustbader writes in the Daily Appeal that prosecutors have become an “unlikely line of defense against abortion bans.”
Natasha Irving, the DA of Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc, and Waldo counties, announced new policies to expand the use of restorative justice, a practice that involves addressing harm outside traditional legal settings by involving defendants and people affected by an alleged crime. (The Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast operates in this area of Maine.) Beth Brogan reports in the Bangor Daily News that Irving campaigned on expanding restorative justice in the 2018 election. Irving also announced that she will expand the use of pre-conviction diversion programs for lower-level offenses.
Maricopa County, Arizona
Maricopa County prosecutor Bill Montgomery has faces accusations that he operates in secrecy and withholds information, Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reports in The Appeal. The ACLU is now suing him for failing to comply with a public records request. In addition, bills to overhaul the state’s legal system derailed in the 2019 session, and state advocates have laid blame on Montgomery’s influence.
Durham County, North Carolina
Durham County DA Satana Deberry, elected in 2018, is rolling out new policies to reduce pretrial incarceration. She is restricting arrests over a failure to appear in court and narrowing the use of cash bail, a practice that leaves poor people in jail because of an inability to afford a payment. Her office states that only “in rare circumstances” should making a financial payment be a condition for pretrial release. Read more in the Political Report.
Durham County, North Carolina
North Carolina revokes the driver’s licenses of people who fail to pay court fees and fines, with no regard for financial ability. Durham is taking action this year through its Second Chance Driving Project. DA Satana Deberry has cleared tens of thousands of traffic cases this year, and she has asked courts to clear thousands of fines and fees that are more than two years old. Parts of this initiative were launched under her predecessor, Roger Echols. It will result in thousands regaining their eligibility to have a license, though informing them of this is yet another challenge. The Political Report writes on broader efforts to counter driving license suspensions in North Carolina.
New York’s legislature reformed the state’s criminal legal system by adopting a slate of changes that reformers have long championed. The state required prosecutors to share information with the defense within 15 days, ended cash bail for many categories of offenses, provided for speedier trials, and acted for some convictions to not trigger deportation. But advocates who worked to get them passed say that the DAs who will be elected in November 2019 will still face major decisions on each of those issues. For instance, they can adopt stronger discovery rules within their office than what the law mandates. Read more in the Political Report.
Dallas County, Texas
Dallas County DA John Creuzot announced a big package of reforms in an open letter. These include no longer prosecuting first-time arrests for marijuana possession and theft of “necessary items” whose value is under $750. He also said he will shorten probation and reduce incarceration for people who violate some of their probation terms. To cut pretrial detention, he instituted a presumptive policy of asking for people to be released without conditions when charged with misdemeanors and some low-level felonies. Creuzot’s announcement sparked opposition from Republican Governor Greg Abbott and police groups. But some conservatives defendedCreuzot.
See also: In Nov. 2019, Ariel Ramchandani profiles Creuzot in The Atlantic, focusing on his policy to decline to prosecute some offenses. But she also writes that “he most wanted to talk about how he might address social crises outside the usual realm of his office, such as mental-health issues and homelessness.” And The Dallas Morning News writes on Creuzot’s push for a “deflection center” to curb the jailing of homeless people over minor offenses.
Utah County, Utah
Jessica Miller reports in the Salt Lake Tribune on reforms announced by David Leavitt, the new prosecutor of populous Utah County. Leavitt intends to create precharge diversion programs for lower-level offenses because he thinks existing approaches to diversion are too selective. “Leavitt calculated that it’s statistically more probable for an applicant to be admitted into Harvard University than it is for an arrested person to get into 4th District drug court,” Miller writes. He also intends to set up a conviction integrity unit within his office.
Macomb County, Michigan
County Prosecutor Eric Smith is under investigation by the state attorney general for how he allegedly spent asset forfeiture funds. He is accused of inappropriately using the funds to pay for parties and furniture, and the state police raided his office last week.
Portsmouth City, Virginia
Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales outlined circumstances in which she would no longer prosecute marijuana possession, as Scott Daugherty reports in the Virginian-Pilot. She said that she will still file possession charges when those are accompanied by higher-level charges, as well as against minors.
Bronx, New York
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed a pilot program of supervised injection sites in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. The Manhattan and Brooklyn DAs have already pledged their support, and the city needs their permission to launch the program. But Bronx DA Darcel Clark opposes safe injection sites. Raven Rakia reports in The Appeal on the significant implications of Clark’s position.
A new California law restricts felony murder, a doctrine under which someone can be prosecuted for a murder that they did not commit. But many California prosecutors, including Los Angeles DA Jackie Lacey are suing, claiming the law is unconstitutional. Jessica Pishko reports in The Appeal on the long history of prosecutors opposing criminal justice reforms in California.
Suffolk County, Massachusetts
Three months into her tenure as the DA of Boston (Suffolk County), Rachael Rollins issued a hefty memo that reforms her office’s prosecutorial practices based on a stated goal to “file fewer criminal charges, divert more people into services and treatment, send fewer people to jail and prison.” The Political Report dug into some of Rollins’s announcements; you can read our analysis here.
The memo’s highest profile announcements may be those over bail reform, and the details of how she will implement her much-publicized campaign commitment to adopt a default policy of declining to prosecute 15 offenses, such as drug possession or trespassing.
Attorney General Kathleen Jennings released a memo outlining new policies that state prosecutors should follow to “increase fairness and proportionality in the system” and “reverse” the “high rates of incarceration and recidivism.” The memo, which covers a wide range of areas, instructs prosecutors to increase the use of diversion (for instance when it comes to offenses that involve marijuana), curb the use of money bail, limit the duration of probation, and take into account possible effects of prosecutorial decisions like deportation. The memo pays special attention to charging decisions and plea negotiations, areas of great prosecutorial discretion. Read more in the Political Report.
Harris County, Texas
Harris County (Houston) DA Kim Ogg asked county officials to increase her office’s budget by $20 million so she could hire 102 new prosecutors. This sparked calls for Ogg to change her office’s practices by reducing the number and type of cases it prosecutes. In February, the five-member County Commissioners Court rejected Ogg’s request while also voting to significantly increase the budget of the public defender’s office. One criticism of Ogg’s proposal was that her office is filing too many charges to start with—and hiring more prosecutors would only balloon that number—and that she should instead look for ways to shrink the criminal justice system by altogether declining to prosecute certain cases. Read more in the Political Report.
Cook County, Illinois
State’s Attorney Kim Foxx announced a shift to treating drug possession as a public health matter, with a default of no incarceration. “Incarceration is not treatment, and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office will no longer address the public health crisis of drug addiction in our criminal justice system,” she said in a Jan. 24 speech. “Diversion will be the presumption in drug possession cases.” Foxx also launched a program to “pursue the expungement of all misdemeanor marijuana convictions.” What this means according to the Chicago Citizen is that people will be able to apply for expungement with her office’s assistance without paying an expungement fee, instead of going through the existing process that requires a payment.
Baltimore, Maryland and St. Louis, Missouri
Marilyn Mosby, the Baltimore state’s attorney, announced on Jan. 29 that her office would no longer prosecute marijuana possession no matter the quantity. She also said that she would act to vacate thousands of old convictions. Her office laid out her rationale in a 14-page white paper. Also in January, St. Louis County’s new prosecutor, Wesley Bell, issued a policy of no longer prosecuting the possession of under 100 grams of marijuana; he will still prosecute larger quantities if he is also accusing a defendant of an intent to sell. Bell’s decision echoes that announced in June by Kim Gardner, the chief prosecutor of the city of St. Louis.
One outstanding question is the persistence of enforcement besides prosecution. In Missouri, municipal officials can still issue citations that remain on one’s record and result in fines; this has limited the impact of local steps toward decriminalization in both St. Louis and Baltimore in the past. Scott Hechinger, senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, warned that, absent legalization, marijuana will remain a pretext for heavy-handed policing. Another matter for continued scrutiny how prosecutors implement their own stated policies.
Read more in the Political Report.
In 2018, Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner announced a new policy meant to limit the use of monetary payments as a condition for pretrial release. The policy was to not seek cash bail from people charged with some misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. Aurelie Ouss and Megan Stevenson, professors at the University of Pennsylvania and George Mason University, released a study assessing the policy’s impact at the one-year mark. They found no ill effect on court attendance or recidivism. Read more in the Political Report.
Hennepin & Ramsey counties, Minnesota
The two county attorneys of Minnesota’s Twin Cities announced new policies on how their offices will handle the prosecution of marijuana-related offenses, Daniel Nichanian reports in the Political Report Both. Both offices will expand the use of diversion programs for felony-level offenses. But both told the Political Report that they would not emulate prosecutors elsewhere in the country who have said that they would simply decline to prosecute marijuana possession cases no matter the quantity. Read more in the Political Report.
Will anyone run for DA in Wisconsin in 2020? An obstacle to using elections to hold DAs accountable, let alone to transform the criminal justice system from the inside, is that elections for prosecutor rarely feature multiple candidates. Writing in the Political Report, Daniel Nichanian reviewed all elections held in Wisconsin since 2008 to show the extent of this phenomenon. Our findings are striking: A near-majority of counties haven’t held a single contested election in that period. Read more in the Appeal: Political Report.
Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner announced in November that he was leaving the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA), an organization that brings together the state’s prosecutors and assistant prosecutors and that lobbies in their name in the state capital. In the Political Report, Daniel Nichanian looks at what the group stands for. The PDAA has championed a series of measures to make the law more punitive or criminalize a new action. In the media, its statements often get reified as the perspective of law enforcement writ large, as the view that reflects the experience of striving for safety and caring for victims. But this does not capture the way the PDAA makes decisions. Read more in the Political Report.
Ferguson and St. Louis, Missouri
Wesley Bell ousted St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch in August, four years after the Ferguson protests. Defeating McCulloch, who had been in office since 1991, involved years of sustained organizing on the part of activists who participated in those protests. Daniel Nichanian talked to Reverend Dr. Cassandra Gould, executive director of Missouri Faith Voices, about what toppled the longtime prosecutor and about what’s next. “We don’t expect St. Louis County to be run the same way in two years that it was run over the past 27 years,” Gould said. “We believe that ongoing engagement and commitment with the prosecutor’s office is extremely important.” Read more in The Political Report.
Two candidates who unsuccessfully ran for DA on the need to reform Oklahoma’s criminal justice system talked to the Political Report about the difficulties of running for prosecutor on such a platform. “We struggled to get anybody to care about the DA race,” said Cory Williams, who ran in Payne and Logan Counties. “There isn’t a built-in pipeline fundraising for DA races,” he added, contrasting his experience in this election with his past legislative races. Both candidates also questioned incumbent prosecutors’ insistence that they are merely applying the law in light of the active role played by the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council. Read more in the Political Report.
Pierce County, Washington
Mary Robnett, the incoming prosecutor of Pierce County, Washington says the job ought to be nonpolitical. But her 2018 campaign also illustrated the limits of this common trope, Daniel Nichanian writes in the Political Report. It ignores the policy decisions that actors involved in the criminal justice system are constantly making, and it reinforces the expectations that the main axis on which to differentiate within prosecutors is whether they are competent. This framing also downplays the criminal justice system’s broader problems; confronting them requires going beyond targeting a set of exceptionally rogue practices. Read more in the Political Report.
Allegheny County, Pennsylvania
Joshua Vaughn identifies considerable disparities in youth justice in the office of Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) DA Stephen Zappala: Black teens in the county were 20 times more likely than their white peers to be arrested and charged as adults in 2016 and 2017. Read more in The Appeal.
Manhattan, New York
Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance has claimed that his office is not prosecuting people who use “gravity knives”during their job, but Melissa Gira Grant reports on contentions that Manhattan prosecutors are still doing so. Read more in The Appeal. New York has since lifted its ban on these knives.