By Udi Ofer
On Election Day 2017, candidates in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Virginia, and New York won on platforms that proactively embraced criminal justice reform or rejected fear-mongering attempts by opponents to label them as soft-on-crime.
Their victories send a strong signal to politicians running in 2018 elections that they do not need to hide from supporting issues like bail and sentencing reform, ending the death penalty, and restoring the rights of people living with a criminal record. They also represent the continuation of a shifting narrative that rejects the old tough-on-crime politics for a new approach that is rooted in civil rights and redefining community safety.
By far the biggest criminal justice reform victory came with the election of Larry Krasner as Philadelphia’s next district attorney. Until 2010, Philadelphia had a district attorney known as America’s “Deadliest D.A.” for her robust support of the death penalty. Yet seven years later, Philadelphians elected a candidate likely to become America’s most progressive prosecutor.
Krasner, a civil rights lawyer who has never been a prosecutor and who wears as a badge of honor the fact that he has sued the police 75 times, won on a platform centered on criminal justice reform and ending mass incarceration. He has often spoken about the need for transformational changes in the city’s criminal justice system, and during his victory party, he spoke of the need to reform a system that has “systematically picked on black and brown people.” He has committed to ending the death penalty, ending cash bail, and fighting mass incarceration. The police unions in Philadelphia
opposed Krasner’s election, mocking it as “hilarious.”
The issue of ending mass incarceration became a priority in the race because of the work of a coalition of local and national criminal justice and civil rights organizations including the Philadelphia Coalition for a Just District Attorney, Color of Change, Safety and Justice PAC, and the Working Families Party. The ACLU hired 51 canvassers who are formerly incarcerated to knock on 26,000 doors to ask our members, in a non-partisan way, to vote for a district attorney candidate committed to ending mass incarceration.
New Jersey’s race for governor was in many ways a referendum on marijuana legalization and on addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Phil Murphy came out in support of marijuana legalization early on in his campaign, and he consistently framed the issue not just as a financial boost for the state but one of racial justice. New Jersey leads the nation in reducing its incarcerated population, seeing a 35 percent drop in its prison population in the past 18 years, but New Jersey also leads the nation when it comes to racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Black residents are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated as white residents.
Phil Murphy committed to addressing these disparities, and often cited the ACLU of New Jersey’s report finding widespread racial disparities in marijuana arrests in New Jersey. He spoke of the “structural racism in our criminal justice system” and of the need to fight against the for-profit prison industry. His platform included reforming mandatory minimum laws and fully implementing New Jersey’s historic bail reform law.
Murphy’s opponent, Kim Guadagno, on the other hand, ran on a platform that exploited people’s concerns about public safety to pander to nativist anti-immigrant sentiment. She tried to label Murphy as soft-on-crime, using Willie Horton style attacks ads — a reference to the infamous 1988 presidential campaign commercial critical of a prison-furlough program supported by Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. New Jersey voters rejected Guadagno’s candidacy and elected Murphy instead.
In Virginia, the race for governor turned into a referendum on President Trump’s supposedly tough-on-crime but destructive political playbook. Ed Gillespie defined his campaign by trying to paint his opponent as soft on gangs and criticized Gov. Terry McAuliffe for restoring the right to vote for thousands of state residents living with a criminal record. President Trump supported Gillespie and tweeted that his opponent, Ralph Northam, will “allow crime to be rampant in Virginia,” whereas under Gillespie, “MS-13 and crime will be gone.” Virginia voters didn’t fall for it. Northam won.
In a lower profile race, Stephanie Morales won re-election as district attorney in Portsmouth City despite having convicted a white police officer in the killing of a Black teenager. She ran on a platform of police accountability and fighting mass incarceration and cash bail.
In Nassau County, New York, Laura Curran won the race for county executive, despite racist attempts by her opponent to paint her as soft-on-crime. A mailer sent to Nassau voters in support of her opponent Jack Martins featured shirtless Latino men covered in tattoos with the text that Laura Curran is “MS-13’s choice for county executive.” The attempt flopped. Curran still won by 3 percentage points.
Despite not having any criminal justice ballot initiatives in 2017, this year will be remembered as one that saw a continuation of the push against mass incarceration and for criminal justice reform. The politics of mass incarceration are just as influential as the policies of mass incarceration. This is particularly true of district attorneys, who have extraordinary discretion in who gets incarcerated; the problem is that extraordinary power can be ripe for extraordinary abuse. This year suggests that the politics of mass incarceration may begin to change on a broader scale and bend towards justice.
Udi Ofer is Deputy National Political Director and Director of Campaign for Smart Justice, ACLU