For progressives, winter came early this year. It started around 8:30 pm on Tuesday, November 8 and has been growing steadily colder ever since. Republican control of the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate, does not bode well for a range of issues close to the heart of American progressivism, from health care to immigration to the environment.
But, amid a sea of bad news that evening, there emerged an island of hope. It came, of all unlikely places, in Jefferson County, Alabama, home to Birmingham. On Wednesday morning, Brandon Falls, the incumbent Republican district attorney, conceded that he lost his seat to Charles Todd Henderson, who became the first Democrat to be elected district attorney in over a decade. Henderson won his race in deep-red Alabama by promising to end “mass incarceration of those with drug addictions and mental illness,” and by revealing that he is “not supportive of the death penalty nor incarcerating our children in adult jails and prisons.”
Henderson’s victory in Birmingham is no fluke. Until last year, district-attorney races tended to fly under the public radar. Elected prosecutors were routinely reelected, often running unopposed and, as a result, served for decades. When they did bother to campaign, their slogans frequently highlighted a record of sending as many people to prison for as long as possible. But that recipe for electoral success is changing. And, with increased attention to these races from extraordinary faith-based groups, community advocates, and local journalists, as well as an influx of support from national donors such as George Soros, progressive challengers are gaining footholds in local races across the country.
In Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, Republican Devon Anderson lost her seat to challenger Kim Ogg, who has promised to overhaul drug prosecutions and has criticized the DA’s office for seeking the death penalty too often. The same basic story emerged in Hillsborough County, Florida, which includes Tampa, where incumbent Republican Mark Ober lost to challenger Andrew Warren. Earlier this year, elected prosecutors lost their primary races to more progressive, reform-minded candidates in Albuquerque, Chicago, Denver, and Jacksonville. In Corpus Christi, Texas, Mark Gonzalez, a criminal-defense lawyer and Democrat with the words “NOT GUILTY” tattooed on his chest, became the district attorney–elect this week.
These local electoral victories are not limited to prosecutor races. In Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, infamous for his fearmongering, cruel and degrading tactics, and barbaric crackdown on immigrants, lost his election. The Harris County sheriff was defeated as well. Nor does the momentum for reform within local district-attorney and sheriff offices exclusively revolve around elections. In Seattle, a partnership among community groups, the public defender, law enforcement, and the King County District Attorney’s Office led to the creation of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which steers people arrested for drug offenses and prostitution away from prosecution and into services aimed at decreasing recidivism such as drug treatment and job training. LEAD, which began in Seattle in 2011, spread to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2014, and to Albany, New York, earlier this year.
These victories represent tangible progress in the ongoing struggle among a dedicated band of progressive advocates in the fight for a more humane and sensible justice system, one that strives to keep us safe while simultaneously treating people fairly and conserving taxpayer dollars.
More importantly, though, this string of successes shows the enormous promise of focusing on both criminal-justice reform and American progressivism more broadly at the local level. While significant advances in climate change and immigration reform require congressional action, criminal-justice reform is an entirely different beast. The center of gravity for meaningful reform tends to be local. Should police officers use stop and frisk tactics? Conduct invasive raids of homes while investigating nonviolent offenses? Use military style vehicles? Those are decisions made by individual police departments or city councils, and are influenced by community advocates. Should prosecutors ask for bail, and how much? Prosecute nonviolent drug possession cases? Prosecute homelessness related offenses, such as sit-sleep-lie bans? Transfer juveniles to adult court? Seek the death penalty? For those decisions, too, local politics matter.
Local criminal-justice reform also serves as a bulwark against the worst impulses of Trumpism. What happens when a Donald Trump Justice Department, perhaps led by Rudolph Giuliani, refuses to intervene when a local police chief suppresses the speech of citizens who are protesting? How about when law enforcement fails to address targeted attacks on our most vulnerable citizens, such as ripping off a Muslim woman’s hijab? Mayors appoint police chiefs. So, here, too, local politics matter. If Trump continues to say that the Central Park Five should be executed, advocate for a national stop-and-frisk program, or claim falsely that the murder rate is at a 45-year high (it is not; in fact, 2015 had one of the lowest rates in 45 years), this use of the bully pulpit may stir local law enforcement and prosecutors into retributive excess. Resources and attention at the local level are an antidote to this fearmongering, allowing advocates and journalists to douse the flames before they can commence a second age of mass incarceration.
The election of Donald Trump may send forth global tremors in many areas. But it changes very little on issues related to criminal-justice reform as practiced at the local level. Roughly 50 million people live in just 15 of the counties that Clinton won this week. Some of these counties voted for Clinton by a margin of 2-1. If disheartened citizens and advocates chose to refocus their resources and attention to pushing reforms in these places, they could quickly see significant gains in the battle to end mass incarceration and help secure relief for millions of Americans.
Moreover, in 2017, there will be district-attorney races in several progressive strongholds. We know that there are over 100 such races in 2018. And that number does not include sheriff races. Nor does it include city-council members and county commissioners who shape budgets and priorities or mayors who appoint police chiefs. Progressive power could be particularly potent in urban areas, where so many progressive advocates reside, and where the need for reform is profound. Unlike at the federal (and often state) level, the population most burdened by overzealous prosecution and policing also possesses the most power to influence local politics.
Criminal-justice reform is not among many progressives’ priorities, but this local analysis shows why it should be. First, in places like Durham, North Carolina, traditional Democratic strongholds with large black populations situated in swing states, investing in local criminal-justice reform could help with voter turnout in 2018 and 2020. Given the narrow margins that tend to accompany wins in states like North Carolina, voter mobilization in these locations is incredibly important for progressives. Investment in criminal-justice reform at the local level creates a strong infrastructure that includes organizers, church leaders and civil-rights organizations. Unlike “out-of-town swoop down” get out the vote efforts, local power in the criminal-justice space draws on strong preexisting relationships, communications channels, and mobilization infrastructure. Most importantly, though, creating the energy to mobilize around local races serves as an insurance policy against national candidates who are less than inspiring.
One reason Clinton lost Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—all by relatively small margins—is a persistent inability to connect with working-class white voters. Criminal-justice reform is an issue that can bridge this divide. Most people—black, white, brown, and Asian—have a family member, a neighbor, or a friend who struggles with mental illness and addiction. For many of us, and especially for those who struggle financially, those addictions inevitably intersect with the criminal justice system. White people, too, and especially marginalized white people who feel that government has abandoned them, struggle to pay overly punitive fines and fees, languish in jail because they cannot afford unnecessarily high bail, and struggle to find employment after convictions for marijuana possession and other low-level offenses. White people, too, are treated as disposable by the criminal-justice system.
There is also an opportunity to connect the massive taxpayer investment in stop-and-frisk and other programs that do not reduce violent crime with overly intrusive government, overzealous and unaccountable public servants, and colossal misuses of resources. Indeed, these are exactly the rationales that have propelled conservatives and libertarians, such as Right on Crime and the Koch brothers, into criminal-justice reform.
Finally, focusing on criminal-justice reform, especially at the local level, helps to create a pipeline of future progressive leaders. First, as an issue, criminal-justice reform is particularly compelling and often very personal, especially among those who have watched our broken system destroy the lives of family members and neighbors. A strong, progressive local criminal-justice reform community is able to attract and recruit the next generation of prosecutors, sheriffs, and other local officials. These local officials become powerful in statewide prosecutor and police associations, groups with enormous influence at the statehouse, and often become state legislators, judges, attorney generals, and governors. Kamala Harris, who was elected to the United States Senate this week, is a striking example. She started as the district attorney of San Francisco County, became California’s attorney general, and now she’s headed to Congress. Who knows, perhaps the pathway from criminal-justice reformer to progressive visionary will take her all the way to the White House.