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The Big Winners in DA Races: Women and Black Candidates

Voters elected a slew of diverse prosecutors who better reflect the communities they serve, and who promised to do their part to move away from policies that perpetuate mass incarceration.

November 12, 2018

Cross-posted from The Crime Report.

For decades, the prosecutorial profession has sorely lacked diversity. After analyzing data from 2014, The Reflective Democracy Campaign found that 95 percent of the nation’s elected prosecutors were white. 

According to their research, just one percent of prosecutors at the time were women of color. 

But in recent elections — including the November 6 midterms — voters have opted for a slew of diverse prosecutors who better reflect the communities they serve, and who promised to do their part to move away from policies that perpetuate mass incarceration. 

In Boston this month, voters elected Rachael Rollins as the first black woman to serve as district attorney in Suffolk County, Massachusetts. Rollins has boldly advanced a proposal to not prosecute 15 offenses, including: trespassing and drug possession with intent to distribute — charging choices that align with reforms made by other recently elected DAs in Chicago, Philadelphia, and elsewhere. 

Rollins’s win continued a trend toward electing more women, African Americans, and Latinos to prosecutorial posts that really became evident four years ago, when Baltimore voters cast their ballot for Marilyn Mosby, the youngest district attorney that city has ever elected.

In 2015, Portsmouth, Virginia, voters elected Stephanie Morales, the first woman to be the elected commonwealth attorney for the city. 

Then, in 2016, Chicago voters elected Kim Foxx as Cook County district attorney, Aramis Ayala as the first black state attorney in Florida, Mark Dupree as the first black district attorney in Kansas, Kim Gardner as St. Louis circuit attorney, and Kim Ogg as the first Democratic district attorney in almost four decades in Houston, Texas.

And this year, in Rensselear County, New York, incumbent County District Attorney Joel Abelove lost to challenger Mary Pat Donnelly, a former town justice in East Greenbush, New York, and a mother of five who ran on the Independence Party ticket. 

But what may be equally significant is the impact this month’s elections are likely to have on criminal justice reform in America. 

While prosecutors on the ballot are often less well-known than individuals running for Congress, or for governor, they wield immense influence in the areas they serve. Prosecutors set the tone for the administration of justice, deciding whether to implement policies that increase incarceration or promote new practices that embody transparency, accountability, and aim to undo centuries of systemic racism. 

This week, voters made clear that they’re largely ready for reform. 

For example, Boston voters appear to have decisively rejected the perspectives of Rollins’ opponent, Michael Maloney, who positioned himself as tough on crime. He had told The Boston Globe that he would prosecute violence and gun crimes to the fullest extent of the law. 

In Rensselear County, Donnelly came out in favor of implementing Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (“LEAD”), which encourages officers to bring low-level arrestees to treatment or social services, rather than to booking. Meanwhile, her opponent, Abelove, may have suffered from criticism of his handling of a 2016 fatal police shooting in Troy, New York, of an unarmed DWI suspect. 

Then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed criminal charges against Abelove related to that case. The charges were later dismissed, but could be re-filed by the state’s newly elected attorney general, Letitia James, the first African-American woman ever to hold that position in New York.

Another revealing result came in Dallas County, where voters elected John Creuzot, a former judge who helped pioneer the county’s first diversion court two decades ago and who pledged to continue the strategies he pursued on the bench of ensuring those charged with low-level drug offenses received treatment in lieu of incarceration. During his campaign, Creuzot made clear that his priorities as district attorney would align with his thinking as a judge.

“In the first 90 days, I’m going to give you a plan to end mass incarceration,” he promised.

In Texas’s Bexar County, Joe Gonzales registered a decisive win over his opponent Tylden. On the campaign trail, Gonzales stated he would immediately work on better implementing a policy allowing police to issue tickets to those found in possession of less than four ounces of marijuana instead of arresting them. 

And also in Texas, in Fort Bend County, Brian Middleton beat GOP opponent Cliff Vacek, a veteran judge, becoming the first black district attorney for the county of more than 765,000 residents. Middleton campaigned on moving bail reform forward and examining racial biases in the prosecution of his office’s cases.

Criminal justice reform was not a winning issue in every prosecutor election. 

Oklahoma boasts the nation’s highest incarceration rate, and in its Payne and Logan counties, District Attorney Laura Austin Thomas was reelected Tuesday. She defeated challenger Cory Williams by more than 4,400 votes. Back in June, Thomas described reform efforts as a “fun and nice and popular” sound byte but largely full of “empty, empty words.” 

Those prosecutors that are embracing reform, however, join a growing movement. 

Working with others who are part of the Fair and Just Prosecution network, they are challenging the status quo and taking on innovative practices to create solutions that promote safer and healthier communities. 

Many of these prosecutors are promoting changes to fortify the trust of their constituents.

Recently, State Attorney Kim Foxx published a groundbreaking report revealing demographics of defendants prosecuted and data on sentencing and dispositions. Others are promoting accountability by creating conviction integrity processes, including in Jacksonville and Orlando, Florida (where none existed previously in that state), and in Kansas City (where over 50 justice system leaders wrote to support the vital role of DAs to correct past injustices).  

And it’s not just DA races. 

Voters Tuesday chose to transform the criminal justice system in a number of ways. In Colorado, a constitutional provision that allows prison slavery was overturned. And Floridians decided to amend the state constitution to restore the voting rights of those convicted of a felony crime, which is expected to impact at least 1.4 million disenfranchised people in that state. 

The movement away from the punitive criminal justice policies of the last four decades is gaining momentum, and on November 6, a significant number of Americans said that was exactly what they wanted.