Guest Commentary: Reform Prosecutors Won Big in Midterms by Rejecting Scare Tactics

By Sam McCann

Between Labor Day and the November 8th midterm elections, voters were bombarded with at least $85 million dollars’ worth of campaign advertisements about crime. Although safety is undoubtedly an important issue, many midterm ads featured inflammatory (and sometimes racist) arguments pushing failed approaches to reducing crime. They called for more police, more arrests, and more incarceration, rather than data-backed investments in community programs and infrastructure that actually build safety.

But those big bets on scare tactics failed to pay off on Election Day. That was true in state and federal elections, in which voters generally opted for candidates pledging to prevent crime through investment in community services rather than those running on platforms pushing for failed punitive approaches. And it was true in many local prosecutor elections as well, as the reform prosecutor movement staked some important victories this election cycle. These wins reinforce the fact that most voters want leaders with an affirmative vision for building safety, not those who insist that their neighbors are people to be feared.

In the face of fearmongering, incumbent reformers who stuck to their message won

After San Francisco voted to recall Chesa Boudin this summer amid a wave of smear attacks from opponents demanding a “tough-on-crime” approach, many in the media said it was the start of a backlash against reform-minded prosecutors. That was false at the time: Boudin lost for a host of reasons specific to San Francisco, including the fact that he and “tough-on-crime” Mayor London Breed were working at cross-purposes. And voters—not just in big coastal cities, but across the country—proved it definitively false on Election Day.

A number of incumbent reform prosecutors held their seats in the face of challenges from “tough-on-crime” opponents. Ryan Mears, a Vera Motion for Justice partner, has been prosecutor of Marion County, Indiana, since 2019 and has used his office’s discretion to do things like refuse to prosecute people for simply possessing small amounts of cannabis and create diversion programs similar to those that have proven to be smart investments nationwide. Mears faced a well-funded challenger who opposed these reforms: Cyndi Carrasco, a former Mike Pence appointee to Indiana Inspector General, said Indianapolis faced a “crime crisis” that Mears’s reforms were incapable of stemming. Mears was also the target of a vote of “no confidence” from the local police union and an enormous $350,000 ad blitz that blamed him for gun violence in Indianapolis. Despite the attacks, Mears declined to pivot to “tough-on-crime” rhetoric, insisting on the importance of his reforms. Voters ultimately agreed with him in a landslide and he won 59 percent of the vote. “Those are really complex problems,” he said in his victory speech, “and what Marion County said today is we want solutions.”

Similar stories played out in Dallas and San Antonio. District Attorney John Creuzot won reelection in Dallas County, carrying 60 percent of the vote by running on his track record of reforms. On the campaign trail, he insisted that those reforms—declining to charge minor offenses to reduce jail overcrowding, declining to prosecute first-time cannabis possession, and refusing to prosecute people for some crimes related to homelessness and mental illness—actually reduce violent crime and build safety. (Though Cruezot did waver slightly, saying he would consider walking back his policy not to prosecute people for theft of food, diapers, or formula.) In San Antonio, Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales was elected in 2018 and announced a policy of releasing nonviolent offenders without bail, which his opponent misleadingly attacked as responsible for a rise in crime. Gonzales stood by his reforms and won a decisive 56 percent of votes.

New reformers scored important wins

Those reform incumbents were joined by a host of new elected prosecutors coming to office with the promise of using their power to build safety while reducing the harm caused by the criminal legal system. Perhaps the most notable win came in Minneapolis, where career public defender Mary Moriarty is set to become Hennepin County Attorney following the first election since George Floyd’s murder. Moriarty won 58 percent of the vote and has pledged a host of reforms including beefing up police accountability, scrutinizing officers who have been caught “testilying” from the stand, expanding alternatives to incarceration, reducing reliance on guilty pleas, and more. Her victory, coupled with Keith Ellison’s victory higher up the ballot in Minnesota’s attorney general race, amounted to a win for an affirmative vision for public safety in the state.

Elsewhere, Kimberly Graham won the Polk County Attorney race in Des Moines, Iowa, after promising to end the use of money bail for many nonviolent offenses and to stop prosecuting low-level cannabis charges. In Hays County, Texas, Kelly Higgins promised to bring a “sea change” to the district attorney’s office, detailing plans for a mental health court and discretion around cannabis prosecution. He faced an opponent who asserted that nearby Austin had fallen into dangerous disarray after a progressive prosecutor took office. Voters disregarded these scare tactics, with Higgins securing 53 percent of the vote. In an open seat in Seattle’s King County, Washington, Leesa Manion ran on a platform advocating for community-based diversion programs to reduce crime. She defeated an opponent who pledged more prosecutions and sought to roll back recent reforms.

The criminalization of abortion played a role in some races

As Vera reported this summer, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling, prosecutorial discretion looms large in efforts to criminalize abortion. Even if states pass laws that limit reproductive freedom, prosecutors in local jurisdictions are under no current obligation to charge people for violating those laws. In an election season in which abortion was significantly more important to voters than crime—and almost as important as inflation—prosecutorial discretion naturally emerged as a major fault line between candidates in states where abortion rights are under attack.

Perhaps no race illustrated this more clearly than the one for prosecutor in Shelby County, Tennessee, which includes Memphis, this August. Steve Mulroy, a civil rights lawyer, challenged incumbent Amy Weirich. The two differed on a number of issues, such as sentencing policy, but their divergent stance on potential prosecutions under state abortion laws played a significant role in Mulroy’s ultimate victory. Weirich declined to answer whether she would prosecute abortion providers while emphasizing that she would “follow the law.” Mulroy, on the other hand, was clear that he would not prosecute medical providers or patients for exercising their reproductive choice, and he pointed out that Weirich in the past had advocated for a state “fetal assault bill” that would have allowed prosecutors to charge pregnant people for drug use during pregnancy. He said this was evidence of how she would handle abortion prosecutions. Ultimately, Shelby County voters sent Mulroy to office with 56 percent of the vote.

This November, similar dynamics played out in Texas races: Higgins, Cruezot, and Gonzales all pledged to not prosecute people under restrictive abortion laws, differentiating these candidates from their opponents. Likewise, Mears pledged to not prosecute doctors for providing abortions in Marion County as the state legislature voted to restrict access.

In the lead up to the midterm elections, analysts wondered aloud about the future of the reform prosecutor movement, with tough on crime rhetoric reaching a fever pitch. Those concerns were compounded by the fact that conservative legislators in states like Virginia, Missouri, and Texas sought to curb the power of local prosecutors to implement the reforms their communities had voted for, and that some states had attempted to remove reform prosecutors from office altogether. But on election day, voters continued to cast their ballots for reformers promising to pursue data-backed policies that can deliver public safety. Their success, amid an overall rejection of rampant scare tactics, underlines the fact that officials have a responsibility to deliver interventions that truly address public safety, rather than doubling down on the harms of overcriminalization and mass incarceration.

Originally published by Vera Institute of Justice.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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