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In 2021, Don’t Sleep on Criminal Justice Elections

DA, sheriff, and mayoral elections will present new openings to upend mass incarceration, from Manhattan and Philadelphia down to Virginia.

New York on June 19, 2020 (Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)

DA, sheriff, and mayoral elections this spring and fall will offer activists and candidates new openings to upend mass incarceration, from New York and Pennsylvania down to Virginia.

In 2020, progressives won prosecutor and sheriff elections across the Sun Belt, from Los Angeles to suburban Atlanta, and to a lesser degree the Midwest. These new officials have begun the year by overhauling policies on bail reform, marijuana, the death penalty, and ICE contracts

The East Coast may take its turn in 2021. A string of local elections that hold the potential of upending the criminal legal system are on the horizon in the spring and fall.

Voters in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Philadelphia, numerous Virginia cities, as well as a medley of counties in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York will elect their prosecutors and/or sheriffs, against the backdrop of sustained organizing and renewed protests. Three of these states also hold statewide elections that may alter the political landscape for criminal justice reform, and a string of municipal races nationwide will affect control over law enforcement.

As ever, local and state officials hold a huge share of the power to fight mass incarceration and wind down our punitive era. Even as Democrats are set to take control of the federal government this week, and some of their agenda involves changes to the criminal legal system, the politics of county prosecutors and sheriffs will have an outsized impact on issues such as sentencing and pretrial detention to drug policy, and plenty of activism will continue pressuring lawmakers, governors, and mayors to aggressively overhaul state rules and statutes.

In 2021, Philadelphia will undergo the biggest test yet for how reform-minded prosecutors fare upon their return to voters. Larry Krasner, the longtime civil rights attorney who won the DA race four years ago and has since pursued reforms, is up for re-election. Elsewhere in the country—in liberal Manhattan, but also in suburban Pennsylvania and in smaller Virginia cities—progressives are hoping to elect candidates who will push the prosecutor’s office toward considerably more decarceral policies. And sheriff elections will take place in counties whose jails have notoriously poor conditions, such as in Erie County (Buffalo) and New Orleans.

Elections will be high-stakes even in smaller jurisdictions such as Portsmouth, Virginia, which last year was the site of a racist backlash to protests that also targeted the local Black prosecutor.

2021 could also put a spotlight on other local officials—most notably mayors—like never before. Mayors have struggled to keep up their usual feigned distance from their police departments in light of the Black Lives Matter protests that defined the summer of 2020, and this is already shaping key elections in 2021. In addition, gubernatorial, legislative, and judicial elections in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia could alter the broader political dynamics.

Beyond the results of any individual race, though, 2021 may continue transforming the broader culture of criminal justice elections. In recent years, local candidates have laid out increasingly bold platforms, perhaps fueled by rising protests and by the previous wins of decarceral candidates whose successes called into question the electoral potency of tough-on-crime attacks.

This has meant more proposals that would shrink the criminal legal system and law enforcement altogether—by not prosecuting certain behaviors at all or by closing jails, for example—rather than just making them work differently. This shift is still nascent, however. Will the 2021 elections further it?

Below, The Appeal: Political Report walks you through some of the defining questions regarding local and state elections that will occupy our attention this year. See also: Our master list of 2021 DA and sheriff races.

Progressives fell short in Queens in 2019. Can they take over the DA office in Manhattan?

Few campaigns have advanced national awareness of DA elections among progressives as much as Tiffany Cabán’s unsuccessful candidacy in Queens in the summer of 2019. New York City is back under the DA spotlight this year because two more boroughs—Brooklyn and Manhattan—are electing prosecutors. Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez, who is expected to run for re-election, has implemented criminal justice reforms during his tenure and has pledged to take no law enforcement donations, but he has also drawn criticism for remaining too cautious about making change. This race has yet to make waves.

The DA race in Manhattan, though, is shaping up to be the battle royale of 2021. 

Cy Vance, the incumbent, has not announced whether he will seek re-election. But in the meantime there are eight candidates who are running to replace him, all in the Democratic primary. Some of the contenders are positioning themselves to be the most progressive in the race and seize Cabán’s mantle, which is raising concerns on the left that the voters interested in the boldest changes against mass incarceration may end up splitting their vote. (New York City will use ranked-choice voting for local elections this year, but that will not apply to the DA election.) Major differences are already emerging in the crowded field on issues such as drug policy, and policing and pretrial detention are sure to be decisive questions given the city’s heated debates over defunding the NYPD and closing the Rikers Island jail complex.

“Obviously the stakes are high for the people most vulnerable to prosecution in New York City, specifically low-income Black and Latinx people, but it’s also a nationally, and even internationally, significant election because of the reach of the office,” Nick Encalada-Malinowski, the civil rights campaign director of VOCAL-NY, told me when I asked why his organization is focused on this election. “We hope to keep pushing the bar of what’s possible from district attorneys and figuring out ways to hold them accountable once in office.”

Eighteen of New York State’s other 60 counties will elect their DAs as well in regularly-scheduled races. The most populous are closely-divided Orange and Suffolk.

Orange County DA David Hoovler, a Republican, has been very vocal over the past two years in opposing the bail and discovery reforms the state adopted in 2019. He headed the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York (DAASNY), the association that lobbies on behalf of state prosecutors and resisted these reforms, when they were implemented.

In a changing Philadelphia, Larry Krasner faces re-election bid

Krasner was a defense lawyer and longtime civil rights attorney when he won the DA race in Philadelphia in 2017, toppling expectations of what kinds of candidates and policy agendas could win these elections. He instantaneously became a national face of progressive prosecutors, and he has since rolled out reforms to reduce drug convictions and adult prosecutions of youth, exonerate more people, and protect immigrants from deportation. He has also sought to strengthen the hand of statewide reformers and death penalty opponents. Court watchers and reform advocates have pushed him to go much further, faulting him on the continued use of cash bail, among other issues.

But Krasner has also clashed continually with the Philadelphia police union and with statewide officials who favor more tough-on-crime policies, including the state’s Trump-appointed U.S. attorney, its Democratic attorney general, Republican state lawmakers. President Trump himself has attacked Krasner as part of his attacks on local criminal justice reforms, calling him “the worst district attorney.”

At the moment, Krasner’s chief opponent is Carlos Vega, a former prosecutor whom Krasner fired. Vega is centering his campaign on a promise to roll back Krasner’s changes, calling them “an experiment that is costing the lives of our children” and pledging to be a “voice for victims.”  (Vega is running in the Democratic primary, which is likely to decide the election in this staunchly blue city.) Other challengers with different platforms may still emerge, but so far Philadelphia’s race is shaping up to be the biggest showdown yet over whether voters will decide to keep prosecutors with reform-oriented agendas in office.

The DA race this year will take place on very different terrain than four years ago, given a series of other victories by left candidates in Philadelphia, including in legislative primaries last year. One of these upset winners was Rick Krajewski, a Krasner organizer in 2017 who ousted an incumbent Democratic lawmaker. A Krasner ally also won the sheriff race in 2019.

Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, pay attention to drug policies and a legacy of tough-on-crime politics

The 2010s saw a shocking explosion in the number of people prosecuted for homicide because they provided or distributed a drug that resulted in a fatal overdose. (These are known as drug-induced homicide charges.) This punitive practice increases incarceration and often punishes people who are drug users themselves. And Pennsylvania has been the epicenter of this practice.

This year, three of the four counties where prosecutors have filed the most drug-induced homicide charges in the nation are holding DA elections. All are in Pennsylvania: Bucks County, a populous swing county in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and heavily conservative Westmoreland and York counties. 

At stake here are not just drug-induced homicide charges, but also the broader shape of drug policy in a state that continues to prosecute people for marijuana, and where lawmakers are more interested in toughening laws than in treating addiction as a public health matter, advocates warn.

The election in Bucks County, where Republican DA Matthew Weintraub is up for re-election, is already heating up. But Danny Ceisler, a Democrat who had centered his campaign on criminal justice reform and on questioning the legacy of “the war on drugs and mass incarceration,” dropped out last week to work at the Pentagon in the wake of the storming of the U.S. Capitol. 

Other Pennsylvania counties of at least 100,000 residents with DA elections this year are Blair, Centre, Lackawanna, Lebanon, and Schuylkill. If a progressive candidate were to break through, it could change not just local policies, but also give a rare in-state ally to Krasner, whose strand of reform politics has left him largely isolated among Pennsylvania prosecutors. The state’s DA association has aggressively championed punitive policies, driving an incarceration rate above the already sky-high national average.

Elections in Virginia could alter the balance of power

In Virginia more than in any other state, the usual tough-on-crime consensus among prosecutors has fissured after a wave of progressive wins in prosecutorial elections in 2017 and 2019. Last year, 11 commonwealth’s attorneys formed a progressive alliance (the Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice, or VPPJ). THe VPPJ is promoting a different strand of policies than the tough-on-crime approach long championed by the state’s traditional prosecutorial association, the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys (VACA). 

Twenty-five Virginia cities are electing commonwealth attorneys in 2021, and that could further change the balance of power in the state.

The president of VACA—Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle, a Republican who is not part of the VPPJ—is up for re-election.

Other Virginia cities of at least 200,000 people that will elect prosecutors are Norfolk, Chesapeake, and Richmond. The incumbents in the latter two are not part of the VPPJ; Richmond in particular leans strongly Democratic. In Norfolk, incumbent Greg Underwood, who is part of the alliance, is retiring, a few years after a showdown with local judges over his refusal to prosecute marijuana possession. At least one candidate who is running to replace him, a deputy prosecutor, has expressed his strong support for the VPPJ’s goals.

Portsmouth, a smaller jurisdiction, will hold one of 2021’s most symbolic elections. Incumbent prosecutor Stephanie Morales, who is Black and played a leading role setting up the VPPJ in July, was targeted by the local police last summer alongside other local Black leaders. The disturbing episode is part of a long history of attempts to overthrow Black political leadership in Portsmouth, adding weight to a ballot that could feature Morales and other local politicians who have faced backlash.

Jail conditions loom large over sheriff races, from Buffalo to New Orleans

The New Orleans jail, which was turned over to a federal appointee in 2016 due to the sheriff’s failure to improve its disastrous conditions, is once again under the management of longtime Sheriff Marlin Gusman, a Democrat who has derided monitoring as an attempt to create a “jail utopia.” In northern New Jersey, immigrants detained in Bergen County have been on hunger strikes to protest their detention in the county jail because of the county’s partnership with ICE, and Sheriff Andrew Cureton, a Democrat, has minimized the issue with inaccurate statements. In Erie County (Buffalo), New York, the jail has seen a long string of deaths under the leadership of Republican Sheriff Tim Howard.

All three of these counties are electing their sheriffs this year—and jail conditions ought to be a major focus in each of them because they affect the health, and even survival, of thousands of people. 

Historically, conditions of county jails have escaped scrutiny, due to a mix of indifference and secrecy, but in recent years local organizing has made it a focal point of sheriffs’ re-election races; this was the case last year in Cincinnati and Fort Worth.

Other populous jurisdictions that will be electing sheriffs this year include Suffolk and Monroe (Rochester) counties in New York, Allegheny (Pittsburgh), Bucks, and Delaware counties in Pennsylvania, Camden and Essex counties in New Jersey, and all of Virginia’s independent cities. Winners will set policies on matters such as medical care within jails, policing, and immigration, and they can exercise clout in statewide debates—as they did in New York last year to push back against bail reform.

Policing protests will ramp up the pressure on candidates for mayor and governor.

Last year, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk record became a central stumbling block for his presidential ambitions. Still, as protests against police brutality grew in 2020, in many cities such as Seattle, Atlanta, and Boston it was mayors who stood in the way of some of the bolder reforms activists demanded. And in New York, the mayor exhibited remarkable carelessness toward COVID-19 contagion in city jails. 

All of those cities, and many more, have elections for mayor and city council in 2021, and candidates will be asked for their plans over their city’s police departments and budgetary choices. The cities of at least half a million residents with mayoral races sometime this year are Atlanta; Boston; Charlotte, North Carolina; Detroit; El Paso and Fort Worth, Texas; New York; San Antonio; and Seattle. Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed by police, is also holding elections for mayor and City Council.

As some cities set up more alternatives to policing and strengthen other public services, these races are opportunities for activists to at least extend those debates into more cities. Also New York’s mayoral election may shape the city’s already delayed plans to close Rikers Island, and its council races feature the candidacy of Cabán as well a Democratic Socialists of America goal of creating a socialist caucus.

Two states, New Jersey and Virginia, will also be electing governors and legislatures. Both are among the states that have advanced the most criminal justice reforms in recent years, in part due to Democrats seizing full control of their state governments in recent years. The Democratic primary for governor in Virginia is already shaping up to be a showdown between the party’s various ideological flavors.

In Pennsylvania, a state Supreme Court election for a Republican-held seat could shift the balance of power on a court that has moved leftward in recent years but has not fulfilled criminal justice reform advocates’ hopes on matters such as ending capital punishment. But a GOP ploy to gerrymander the state’s courts could wreak havoc on the judiciary, starting with the prospect of a referendum to change the election system in the spring.

This story has been corrected to reflect that a candidate has dropped out of the election for Bucks County DA.