Do Americans really love the drug war, mass incarceration, and the rest of our litany of criminal injustice? The 2022 midterms predictably showed us a country divided, along urban-rural lines as much as party ones.
The most high-profile outcomes give us little to read into the tea leaves. In Pennsylvania, Democrat John Fetterman, who was forthright in his support for some key planks in the criminal justice reform platform, narrowly defeated Dr. Oz, the Republican. However, in Wisconsin, which is in some ways not that different from Pennsylvania, the race went the other way, with Republican Ron Johnson squeezing out Democrat Mandela Barnes.
Looking at county prosecutor races, where crime is the only issue on the ballot, some more meaningful pictures arise. Take, for example, the late entry of the Midwest into the progressive-prosecutor party.
Holton Dimick, a conservative Democrat and former prosecutor, was endorsed by Mayor Jacob Frey, a major opponent of the defeated plan to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a re-envisioned public safety agency. Holton Dimick emphasized her belief that the prosecutor’s job is ultimately “safety first”—a euphemism for the status quo.
Moriarty has a different perspective. A progressive candidate who ran on the need for police accountability, she was previously the county’s chief public defender, but was fired by the state public defender board in retaliation for her vocal advocacy for criminal justice reform.
Pamela Price, a pro-decarceration civil rights lawyer, achieved a stunning victory in Oakland.
Not only did Moriarty do extremely well in the aggregate, but she beat Holton Dimick in almost every precinct in the county. The only places where Holton Dimick did consistently better were the likes of Orono, on the county’s most rural edges, and Edina, a wealthy suburb that skews older in age. Of course, Edina and Orono are comparatively crimeless, so their voters are weighing in on an issue that more likely than not has little personal impact on them.
Polk County, Iowa (Des Moines), the largest county in a state previously untouched by the progressive prosecutor movement, will also have a reformist top prosecutor. Kimberly Graham promised to focus on crimes of violence, while cutting back on prosecutions of nonviolent charges.
While reformers will welcome these victories, Moriarty and Graham were both favorites to win.
That’s not true of Pamela Price, a pro-decarceration civil rights lawyer who achieved a stunning victory in Almeda County (Oakland), confirmed long after publication time. Price becomes the first Black district attorney for the county, securing 53 percent of the vote. Her opponent, Terry Wiley, the current chief deputy DA in a carceral machine that disproportionately harms Black people, had been expected to win; voters decided otherwise.
Maricopa County (Phoenix), Arizona, keeps on narrowly missing out on a reformist top prosecutor.
But in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, another place that you might expect to be ripe for reform, Rahsaan Hall—like Price, a Black civil rights lawyer on the left of the Democratic Party who wasn’t favored to win—was heavily beaten by incumbent Timothy Cruz, Massachusetts’ only Republican DA, 63 percent to 37.
Meanwhile Maricopa County (Phoenix), Arizona, keeps on narrowly missing out on a reformist top prosecutor.
After the latest election, hard-right incumbent Rachel Mitchell (R) appears to have kept her seat, declaring victory on November 14. Her reform-minded opponent Julie Gunnigle (D), who promised to “redefine public safety,” only just lost the 2020 election. She seems to have suffered the same fate again, achieving 48 percent of the vote at publication time—exactly the same as a previous reform candidate achieved there in 2016. Mitchell is well known for her softball questioning at Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanagh’s Senate confirmation (and arguably being a proximate cause for the overturning of Roe v. Wade).
Elsewhere, DA Brooke Jenkins kept her seat as expected in San Francisco, despite—or more likely, because of—her draconian drug-warrior stance. But King County (Seattle) will keep a reformer, Leesa Manion, in charge of the prosecuting attorney’s office.
Aside from Price’s impressive victory, none of this is terribly surprising. Overall, the movement to reform the criminal-legal system through prosecutors now behaves more like shifting sands than the wave it resembled just a few years ago. Whether and how much it appears to move depends very much on where you’re standing.
Correction, November 23: This piece has been edited to reflect Pamela Price’s victory, which was confirmed after publication time. Vote counts at publication time had suggested she would narrowly be defeated.