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Your Essential Criminal Justice Guide to Election Night

From sheriffs to bail to marijuana, and more—here’s what you need to know.

Campaigners hold placards outside an early voting station in Orlando, Florida.
Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

Your Essential Criminal Justice Guide to Election Night

From sheriffs to bail to marijuana, and more—here’s what you need to know.


It may be Donald Trump’s America, but in local elections this year, candidates from both parties are shying away from “tough on crime” campaigning and instead promising to reform the criminal justice system. Prosecutors and sheriffs who hold tremendous discretion in shaping law enforcement policies are on the ballot in hundreds of counties—as are referendums and statewide contests that could transform prosecution and sentencing rules. Candidates are talking about cash bail reform, trumpeting their support for diversion programs, highlighting their concern about racial disparities, and promising that they will not participate in federal operations that target immigrants.

“It’s a testament to the influence the movement has had in shifting the field,” Udi Ofer, the director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, told The Appeal.

Reform advocates have scored decisive wins in recent years, whether by electing prosecutors like Larry Krasner, who ran on targeting mass incarceration, or by directly persuading voters to reduce aggressive sentencing through referendums. This year alone, in a series of primaries, such as in St. Louis County; Cole County, Missouri; and Bexar County, Texas, candidates running on reforming the criminal justice system ousted prosecutors who favored more aggressive tactics and issued alarmist public safety warnings. And incumbents under political pressure from activists have embraced important reforms, as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo did when he signed into law the country’s first commission to investigate prosecutorial misconduct weeks before facing a Democratic primary.

Still, as reform rhetoric becomes more popular, it is clear that candidates are using it to refer to vastly different policies. “It’s easy to say yes” to diversion, Danny Carr, a candidate for district attorney in Jefferson County, Alabama, said during an October debate in which he and his opponent both voiced support for such programs. “The better [question] is, would you broaden the types of cases that are eligible for diversion programs?” Similarly, many prosecutorial candidates are pledging to ensure that no one is jailed because they are too poor to post bail, but the impact of such promises will hinge on how they define indigent status, or for which exact charges they will refrain from seeking bail. And then there are incumbents like Erica Marthage, the state’s attorney in Bennington County, Vermont, whose electoral enthusiasm for alternatives to incarceration belies a punitive record.

Many politicians still use the usual playbook of attacking opponents as “soft on crime” or hostile to policing. According to Ofer, Florida’s and Georgia’s gubernatorial elections “will be looked at as a defining moment for tough-on-crime versus smart justice platforms.” Some local elections feature similar clashes, sometimes in conservative jurisdictions like Oklahoma’s Payne and Logan counties.

But the pressure that many candidates face to steer clear of conventional promises of aggressive prosecution speaks to the changing politics of criminal justice reform. All in all, The Appeal: Political Report has identified and previewed 45 state and local elections where some important aspect of the criminal justice system is at stake on Tuesday. Some trends emerge.

Many routes to marijuana reform

The movement to legalize marijuana has a lot riding on Election Day. Four states might legalize the drug by referendum: Michigan and North Dakota for recreational use, and Missouri and Utah for medicinal use.

Victories by governors who back marijuana legalization—including JB Pritzker (Illinois), Tim Walz (Minnesota), Gretchen Whitmer (Michigan), Michelle Lujan Grisham (New Mexico) who are all favored to win, as well as candidates locked in tighter contests such as Andrew Gillum (Florida), Ben Jealous (Maryland), and Ned Lamont (Connecticut)—could alter the legislative landscape on this issue. Pritzker and Grisham in particular are likely to govern alongside a Democratic legislature. In Michigan, Whitmer’s win could facilitate the referendum’s expansion into legislation to expunge past convictions.

North Dakota’s referendum already contains that additional step toward expungement; it would seal the records of people who have completed their sentence for most marijuana convictions, but it would not alter the sentences that people are currently serving. “I think in past years the focus had been on creating the system for moving forward, and now that that’s become less of an unknown people are more comfortable looking back and looking at past convictions,” Mason Tvert, the spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project, told The Appeal.

In states that have not legalized marijuana, prosecutors have wide latitude for handling cases—whether they file charges at all, and if so how severe they are. Many candidates for district attorney are now promising to use their discretion to limit, if not eliminate, marijuana charges, or else to treat these cases as civil infractions instead of criminal offenses.

John Creuzot, who is running for district attorney in Dallas County, says that he would no longer charge first-time marijuana possession cases, while Joe Gonzales, running in Bexar County, wants to strengthen the county’s cite-and-release program. In Minneapolis, the disparity in marijuana possession arrests between African Americans and whites was elevenfold according to an ACLU study from 2014; Mark Haase, who is running to be county attorney in Hennepin County (the jurisdiction that includes Minneapolis) has pledged to not charge any marijuana offense absent “circumstances like very, very large amounts or sale to a minor.” And in Boston, Rachael Rollins has gone a step further by stating that her default policy if she is elected district attorney would be to not prosecute any drug possession charges.

Reforms to sentencing and conviction rules target mass incarceration

Efforts to curb unequal convictions, shorten sentences and reduce the severity of charges will appear on ballots all over the country on Tuesday.

Louisiana’s Amendment 2 takes aim at the state’s racial disparities. It would no longer allow non-unanimous juries to render guilty verdicts for felonies, a vestige of the Jim Crow-era Constitution that still results in Black Louisianans’ disproportionate incarceration, as a New Orleans Advocate investigation showed this year.

Two initiatives promote changes to past convictions. Floridians could strengthen the hands of lawmakers who wish to reduce the existing prison population by passing Amendment 11, which would enable new sentencing reforms to be applied retroactively; Florida’s Constitution currently imposes uniquely harsh limits on the legislature’s ability to reduce sentences that people are already serving. In Ohio, the Issue 1 referendum downgrades possessing any drug to a misdemeanor, and enables people who are already serving a sentence for drug possession to seek a new, reduced sentence.

Mandatory minimum guidelines, another major obstacle to decarceration, could face renewed pushback if critics of the guidelines win. In Florida, where lawmakers from both parties have called for sentencing reform, the viability of such rollbacks hinges on who will wield the governor’s veto pen;  Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis supports maintaining mandatory minimums while Gillum, his Democratic opponent, supports letting judges occasionally override them.

Massachusetts could be in for a change as well. In 2015, 10 of the state’s 11 DAs signed a letter in defense of mandatory minimums that lawmakers were targeting. The possible elections as district attorney of Rollins in Boston, Andrea Harrington in Berkshire County, and John Bradley in Plymouth County would give state reformers new allies.

Prosecutorial candidates who are seeking to reduce the prison population have also converged on targeting the effects of fines and fees that courts impose on defendants. Many individuals who cannot afford these costs are jailed, a cycle that Carr has pledged to break in Jefferson County, Alabama.

More indirectly, the presence of fines and fees can result in harsher sentences. In Bexar County, Texas, defendants must pay a steep fee to access the less punitive diversion programs. One of the district attorney candidates, Joe Gonzales, denounced this as a “pay to play” system. In Payne and Logan counties in Oklahoma, DA candidate Cory Williams says he would curb prosecutors’ habit of charging defendants with felonies to extract higher fees from them.

Local cooperation with ICE could expand—or contract

To amplify its reach, ICE uses a variety of agreements with local law enforcement. The most visible type of agreement is the 287(g) deal that authorizes local deputies to act like federal immigration agents by investigating the status of people they detain. Other modes of cooperation can be more informal and harder to track. They include providing ICE with lists of foreign-born individuals held at county jails, giving ICE office space in said jails, or agreeing to detain people that ICE has arrested in exchange for nightly payments.

Tuesday’s elections for sheriff or county executive—the officials who often decide a county’s cooperation with ICE—will be decisive for the fate of many such partnerships.

The scope of the potential change is limited by the fact that many politicians who criticize ICE also argue that their county would suffer too big a financial hit if they severed their existing relationship with the federal agency. Immigrants’ rights advocates counter that more is at stake. “What kind of public servant do you want to be,” Johana Bencomo, the director of community organizing at NM CAFé, told The Appeal in reference to this dynamic unfolding in Doña Ana County, New Mexico. “Do you want to be one that’s attached to money or one that’s serving your community and what your community needs?”

Still, The Appeal has identified 10 counties—plus an entire state—where divergent approaches to local immigration enforcement are confronting one another on Tuesday’s ballot.

Maryland alone features at least four counties in which the fate of a single election will most likely affect  participation in the 287(g) program. North Carolina’s Wake County features a similar showdown between longtime sheriff Donnie Harrison and Gerald Baker, a challenger who pledges to withdraw from 287(g). The ACLU has spent $140,000 advertising this election’s impact on immigration policy, an ACLU official told The Appeal.

Elsewhere in the country—from Hennepin County, Minnesota and Hillsborough County, Florida to Ulster County, New York and Orange County, California—sheriffs and undersheriffs who assist ICE are running against challengers who have pledged less cooperation and who warn of straining ties between sheriff deputies and immigrant communities. “All you’ve done is you’ve created hate toward the local law enforcement,” Gary Pruitt, the Democratic nominee for sheriff in Hillsborough County, told The Appeal about current Sheriff Chad Chronister’s deal with ICE.

In Oregon, the Federation for American Immigration Reform and Oregonians for Immigration Reform, organizations that the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as hate groups, have put forward a referendum (Measure 105) that would repeal the state’s 32-year old “sanctuary” law.

Voters weigh in on prosecutorial and policing misconduct

Sheriffs and prosecutors wield tremendous force but face little oversight, and often little electoral accountability. Seventy-four of Minnesota’s 87 prosecutorial elections only featured one candidate this year, for instance, according to an analysis by The Appeal, a phenomenon in keeping with studies of past cycles.

But voters already rejected the legacies of two of the nation’s most controversial officials already this year. Bob McCulloch, St. Louis County’s longtime prosecuting attorney, lost to Wesley Bell in the August Democratic primary in what was his first contested election since the Ferguson protests of 2014. Milwaukee County ousted Acting Sheriff Richard Schmidt, who had worked under Sheriff David Clarke during a string of gruesome deaths in the Milwaukee jail.

On Tuesday, voters will weigh in on other allegations of abuse or misconduct.

The sheriffs of Hillsborough County, Florida; Santa Clara County, California; Los Angeles County; Frederick County, Maryland; and Wake County, North Carolina, are seeking re-election; The Appeal has recently reported on the abusive detention conditions in jails run by the first three, and on aggressive policing conducted by the latter three’s deputies. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s contentious re-election race has been shaped by his decision to not charge police officers who shot and killed two Black men. And in Rensselaer County, New York, District Attorney Joel Abelove is running for re-election a year after he was indicted for withholding evidence from a grand jury in the aftermath of a police shooting. (The charges were dismissed in June, though the state attorney general’s office has appealed.)

Local referendums also seek to curb official abuses. Nashville could implement a civilian board to investigate police misconduct, and two Alabama counties may bar sheriffs from personally pocketing funds allocated for food in jails.

Bail reform is on everyone’s lips

“More than any other year, bail reform has become a topic of conversation,” Ofer of the ACLU says, referring to the demands to overhaul a system that keeps many poor individuals in jail before trial because they cannot afford the financial conditions set for their release.

In New York, the urgency of overhauling this system has drawn more attention since Kalief Browder, a teenager incarcerated for three years without a trial because his family was unable to pay bail, died by suicide in 2015. Last year, Selmin Feratovic died on Rikers Island while held on a $50,000 bail. An audit revealed that in 2016 about 76 percent of the people jailed on a given day in New York City had not yet been tried, and that a majority of these pretrial detainees are there because they cannot afford bail.

Despite the pressure created by such cases, change has proved elusive so far in New York. Reform efforts stalled in the state Senate this year. Two Democratic candidates who won primaries for the state Senate told The Appeal in September that they would prioritize such legislation in the upcoming session; that plan is most likely dependent on whether their party wins a majority in that chamber on Tuesday.

Here again prosecutors have a great deal of influence because they often have leeway in the bail amount and conditions they seek. Candidates like Bell, Rollins, or Bradley have pledged to eliminate the use of cash bail for some offenses or to ask for more releases on personal recognizance, which enable people to be released pretrial without owing a payment. Jealous and Gillum, as well as Stacey Abrams of Georgia, all feature bail reform in their gubernatorial platforms.

Judges also enjoy discretion in deciding how to set bail. In Harris County (the Texas jurisdiction that includes Houston), Democratic challengers have made this into an issue against the county’s misdemeanor judges in the wake of a court ruling that found that Harris County’s bail practices violated defendants’ rights.

But as promises to reform the bail system become ubiquitous, Ofer acknowledges that some of the candidates lack a sufficiently specific or daring vision of what it should entail. Vague slogans have served as cover for toothless changes, and poor reforms can worsen the situation if they replace cash bail with alternatives that increase pretrial detention, as Ofer believes California did this year.  Still, he argues that the spread of this message represents progress. “It shows success by the movement that the issue has elevated to such prominence that candidates feel that they have to take a pro-bail reform position,” he said.

“The job of advocates,” Ofer added, “is going to be to fill the gap in what bail reform means.”

Special Edition: Law Enforcement Elections Guide

Special Edition: Law Enforcement Elections Guide


Special Edition: Attorney General Elections Guide

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.

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]

COLORADO

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]

FLORIDA

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]

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

Have a tip for The Appeal? Write to us at tips@theappeal.org. A good tip is a clear description of newsworthy information that is supported by documented evidence.

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For The First Time, A Chicago Judge Could Lose His Seat For Being Too ‘Tough on Crime’

No Cook County judge has lost a retention election in 28 years.

Exoneree Jose Montanez speaks in an ad against Judge Matthew Coghlan.
Judicial Accountability PAC

For The First Time, A Chicago Judge Could Lose His Seat For Being Too ‘Tough on Crime’

No Cook County judge has lost a retention election in 28 years.


Chicago activists are trying to pull off a feat that has been unthinkable for the last two decades: getting a sitting criminal court judge removed from the bench in his re-election campaign.

Judges in Cook County, which encompasses Chicago and the surrounding area, have to run for a retention election every six years. They face no challengers, only a yes-or-no vote to keep them on the bench. None of the dozens of judges on the bench have lost such an election since 1990. But this year, a coalition of activists and attorneys has banded together in a campaign to unseat Cook County Circuit Judge Matthew Coghlan on Election Day.

They hope to send a strong message to other judges with harsh sentencing records that they will be held accountable.

“The first line of defense that most citizens don’t even pay attention to is that you get to vote these people on and off [the bench],” said Angela Lockett, staff attorney with First Defense Legal Aid. But judges often have a bigger impact on people’s lives than the statewide and federal candidates who get more attention. “You’re [more likely] to have an interaction with them long before you see Trump,” she noted. “We wanted people to start paying attention.”

The Judicial Accountability Political Action Committee formed by the coalition targeted Coghlan out of the 61 judges running for retention in Illinois based on two factors. The first was based on an analysis of judges’ sentencing records to determine who had the harshest patterns. The committee also looked at which judges were most likely to have decisions reversed by appellate courts. When it ran the numbers, Coghlan’s name was on every list, civil rights attorney Jeanette S. Samuels said.

The committee chose Coghlan, who was first elected in 2000, because he also has a controversial record as a prosecutor. Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez, two men who were recently exonerated after spending 23 years in prison, accused Coghlan of participating in a meeting to frame them for murder, along with a detective who was  linked to many wrongful convictions. Coghlan has denied the allegations. In another instance, Coghlan denied a hearing for Antonio Nicholas, who said that police detectives working under former Commander Jon Burge tortured him into a false murder confession. The Illinois appellate court reversed Coghlan, saying Nicholas had shown sufficient evidence to merit a hearing on his confession and conviction. Coghlan still refused, leading the court to appoint another judge to the case.

Activists say that compared with his harsh treatment of most defendants, Coghlan gives police officers far more lenient sentences. They point to a case in which he gave Chicago police officer Richard Bolling three years in prison after Bolling struck and killed a 13-year-old boy while driving drunk.

“We can’t trust that he will be fair and impartial,” Lockett said of Coghlan. “We have to send a message that you cannot still be on the bench and be put in this position of power and favor and conduct yourself like that.” Coghlan “stood out as one of those individuals who epitomizes what’s wrong with our legal system,” Samuels said.

To get the word out, the groups have held voter education events at churches, community organizations, and college campuses; handed out literature and canvassed on the street; and set up phone banks. “It’s not just the judges who don’t expect it to change, the public doesn’t expect it to change,” said Maria Hernandez, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Chicago.

The campaign is about more than Coghlan’s record. It is also intended to educate people about the power they hold in an often confusing and opaque system. “It’s also an effort to inform people about what a retention election means, the way the judiciary is set up in Cook County,” Samuels said.

The Cook County Circuit Court is one of the largest unified court systems in the world, with more than 400 judges handling 2.4 million cases a year. Yet the retention elections typically don’t attract many voters. In the last retention election in 2016, every judge won with less than 600,000 yes votes, even though more than 1 million residents cast votes in the presidential election on the same ballot. “At its core, this is a campaign that is just trying to get the conversation started about how important these judges are,” said Dan Schneider, an attorney and organizer.

In the long run, the organizers hope that drawing more public scrutiny and voting out the judges with harsh records could change the whole system. “These judges are being re-elected with impunity, and if we want to improve the justice system, it has to stop,” Schneider said. If Coghlan fails to win retention, “it’ll send a shockwave through the judiciary here,” Schneider said. “To say that a judge could potentially lose their job because of the disparate sentencing practices they’ve engaged in or their failure to do justice from the bench is something that judges will take notice of. … This is a tool of criminal justice reform.”

The coalition also plans to eventually campaign for judges who it feels wield their power  fairly. “We want to empower judges to do the right thing,” Samuels said. “We’re also going to support the judges who are doing the right thing to make sure they’re not being retaliated against.”

There is the risk that others could campaign against retaining judges for the opposite reason: because they are seen as too lenient. Historically, judicial elections have been flooded with “tough-on-crime” campaigns that attack candidates for reversing wrongful convictions or freeing people early.  Studies have found that election pressure causes judges to sentence more punitively. A campaign against a Colorado appellate judge who overturned a conviction after finding the defendant’s rights were violated has already kicked off ahead of his retention election in 2020. The Brennan Center for Justice, a criminal justice reform organization, has warned that “the dynamics of judicial elections may threaten judges’ ability to serve as impartial arbitrators in criminal cases.”

Brendan Shiller, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney involved in the anti-Coghlan campaign, acknowledged the risk of “right-wing reaction” to their approach, but argued that the coalition is simply fighting with the tools they have available.

“From a philosophical perspective, appointed judges may be better. … But, we have an elected system in Illinois,” he said. “Refusing to engage in the political fight because we may lose some seems stupid at best when we are already losing them all.”

The elections could be a mechanism to restore some faith in the entire criminal justice system. About two-thirds of Cook County residents polled by by Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute said they feel the criminal justice system is biased against Black people, perhaps unsurprising in a city where it was recently revealed that more than a hundred Black men were tortured by Chicago police for decades. No Chicago police officer had been convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting until last month, when a jury convicted officer Jason Van Dyke, who shot Black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times.

Advocates feel this is the right moment to test this strategy. “People are starting to think more in-depth about criminal justice issues, people are jazzed up to exercise their right to vote this cycle,” Schneider said. There also isn’t another high-profile race in Cook County that would “draw up all the oxygen.”

One big barrier for voters is the sheer amount of research to do on all the judges before before they head to the polls. Very little information on judges’ records is easily accessible to the public. “I’m a practicing attorney here, and I can tell you in all honesty I didn’t know even one fact about all of the judges up for retention,” Schneider said.

This year, the Cook County Democratic Party, which usually endorses every judge for retention, took the rare step of refusing to endorse Coghlan. Seven bar associations have also declined to recommend Coghlan for retention.

When asked for a comment from Judge Coghlan, a spokesperson for the Cook County Circuit Court said the judge couldn’t comment on political campaigns, referring the issue to the Committee for Retention of Judges in Cook County. The committee sent a statement saying Coghlan was rated qualified by “numerous bar associations” and denied any wrongdoing in the case of the two exonerated men. “The Committee for the Retention of Judges supports him 100% and urges a vote YES on retention,” the statement read.

Activists are targeting Cook County judges in other ways. Last week, demonstrators, including Black Lives Matter’s Hernandez, occupied and shut down the lobby of a courthouse to protest judges who violated an order to reduce bail amounts for people who can’t afford them. The action resulted in Chief Judge Timothy Evans agreeing to meet with the protesters. The tactics deployed against Judge Coghlan apply here, too. “Standing up and saying we are watching you,” Hernandez said. “When each judge comes up for election, we know which judges are over sentencing and defying this order.”

The campaign against Coghlan is just the beginning. There are retention elections for judges in Cook County every two years. “We’re just watching all of the judges,” Hernandez said. “We are mapping out when the time is for each of them.” Not every judge would be targeted for removal, but “I believe Matt Coghlan is the first of many,” she said.

The campaign might even decide to use different criteria next time, Lockett said. “After [Coghlan], then we can go after those who sentence minorities more harshly than the others, or who take 50 seconds on each bond, or are always giving a high bond,” Lockett said.

“It’s a long-term battle,” Hernandez said. “We fight hard in the short term, but our vision is always long term.”

“This is the first sign of the new changes we plan on pushing through Chicago over the next decade.”

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