As American voters are bombarded with messages about what they can do to control the House and Senate, few voters, or news outlets, are as fired up about another crucial group that is up for election on Nov. 6: state attorneys general. Even John Oliver recently chided voters for not educating themselves on the AG races. “The primary task of reforming criminal justice in the United States falls to state and local officials,” writes StateAG.org, a legal research and education website that examines the role of state attorneys general in law and national policy. “State attorneys general in many states are using an array of approaches to address systemic criminal justice issues, such as mass incarceration, policing practices, and changes in criminal sentencing.” [StateAG.org]
The Appeal: Political Report website has provided analysis of various competitive state attorney general races, including Florida, Kansas, Delaware, and Colorado. Below, we bring you some highlights from that coverage, as well as analysis of a competitive attorney general race in Maryland.
Republican Craig Wolf decided to challenge incumbent Attorney General Brian Frosh, espousing various criminal justice tactics that seem like relics of the tough-on-crime era that oversaw the mass incarceration crisis. “I was just appalled with what was going on with the crime, Baltimore being the murder capital of the country, 2,000 opioid deaths a year, we’re fourth in the country in trafficking women and children, gang and gun violence everywhere, and the current attorney general seems focused on the politics,” Wolf said. A former prosecutor, Wolf joined the U.S. Army after the Sept. 11 attacks and deployed to Afghanistan at the age of 49. Wolf worked for the Justice Department and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, and then became a lobbyist for wine and liquor wholesalers. “He’s been running ads on Baltimore television stations featuring news coverage of violence in the city,” reports the Baltimore Sun. “He wants stiffer prison sentences, easier jailing of suspects awaiting trial, and the return of the death penalty in Maryland.” [Ian Duncan / Baltimore Sun]
“Frosh says Wolf’s focus on criminal prosecutions misunderstands the role of the attorney general—which has to ask permission from local prosecutors before using a grand jury to investigate or file charges—and overlooks Frosh’s efforts to do more to help tackle violent crime,” according to the Sun. “Frosh hired senior prosecutors from the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office as leaders on his team and started a violent crime unit, which he says has brought charges against more than 100 people.” Wolf wants to impose new mandatory minimum sentences, but has not stated which offenses they would apply to. On pretrial detention, Wolf would seek to undo the new law that requires judges to consider defendants’ ability to pay when setting bail. Frosh had championed that change. “It’s an easy fix,” he said. “It saves money. It allows people to lead productive lives. It delivers better justice.” But Wolf says, “They’re there for a reason. They’re in jail because of something they did,” although he acknowledges, “They still have the presumption of innocence.” [Ian Duncan / Baltimore Sun]
Polling from less than a month ago shows the race tightening, with 23 percent of voters undecided. [Rachel Chason and Scott Clement / Washington Post]
In the Democratic primary for attorney general of Colorado, Phil Weiser, a law professor at the University of Colorado, beat state Representative Joe Salazar. Both articulated reformist positions: support for the state’s marijuana legalization and bail reform, opposition to the death penalty, and a commitment to offering legal support to sanctuary cities. Weiser was more moderate than Salazar, saying that although he opposed the death penalty, he would defend it as it currently stands in Colorado. He also did not espouse the more aggressive reforms embraced by Salazar. Weiser now faces Republican George Brauchler, the district attorney of Colorado’s Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert, and Lincoln counties. In a statement in March, the ACLU of Colorado highlighted Brauchler’s “devotion” to capital punishment. “Brauchler and his office reside at the extreme fringe of the issue in Colorado,” it said, noting that “Colorado’s death row is occupied exclusively by black men from Brauchler’s district.” Brauchler has also mounted a legal battle with the Colorado Independent, a publication that sought to unseal records about prosecutorial misconduct. And he is blocking efforts to revisit juvenile sentences in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down mandatory sentences of life without parole for children. In April, he filed a petition that challenged the constitutionality of a new state law that provided for reconsideration of such sentences. [Daniel Nichanian / Appeal: Political Report]
Sean Shaw says he is running for attorney general of Florida to “hold the legislature accountable” for failing to implement ballot initiatives approved by the voters. This comes amid a nationwide pattern of referendums being disregarded by elected officials. Shaw, a state lawmaker himself who is now the Democratic nominee, says he could even sue the legislature to ensure compliance. One of the referendums that Shaw has in mind is on medical marijuana, which passed overwhelmingly as an amendment to the state Constitution in 2016. Governor Rick Scott and the legislature then adopted a ban on smoking marijuana. A court has since struck down that ban as violating the referendum, and officials are appealing that decision. The Republican nominee for attorney general, former circuit court judge Ashley Moody, supports the appeal and the ban on smokable marijuana; Shaw does not. “The day I take office those appeals will end,” he said. Shaw has also indicated support for wider marijuana legalization and for policies that move away from incarcerating people for drug possession. “We ought to be building substance abuse centers, not just more prisons all the time,” he said. Shaw says that he would like Florida’s Stand Your Ground law repealed because it enables murder. Shaw also supports the initiative to restore the voting rights of most people who complete a sentence following a felony conviction, which Moody opposes. [Daniel Nichanian / Appeal: Political Report]