A Bad Election Night for Bids to Transform Criminal-Legal Systems

    The future of criminal justice was on the ballot across the United States on November 2. The theme ran through electoral contests as varied as the gubernatorial election in Virginia and the mayoral race in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In several cities, firebrand leftist candidates ran on reconceptualizing public safety, up to and including prison and police abolition.

    It did not work out so well in the end.

    Nonetheless, it would be a stretch to read the results as a decisive referendum on the popularity of criminal justice reform and/or abolition. Many other variables were at play in most of these votes, not least politics-as-usual—the so-called “thermostatic” effect whereby voters of the party that doesn’t hold the White House are energized, leading in this case to a backlash against a Democratic party split between its centrist and progressive wings. The issues aren’t going away, but here’s how some of the key races just went. 


    Youngkin Is the Next Virginia Governor

    This race, pitting former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe against Republican and political newcomer Glenn Youngkin in a blue-leaning state, was perceived as a national barometer and was always going to be close.

    But Youngkin narrowly came out on top, spelling a likely halt for ongoing legislative initiatives to reform Virginia’s justice system. Youngkin has claimed that Democrats have made Virginia less safe, and has promised a police officer in every school, among other changes.

    Youngkin also has his eyes on the newly elected set of progressive prosecutors in Virginia. During the campaign, he publicly targeted Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj, after she charged the father of a student who was allegedly sexually assaulted for disrupting a school board event. It was part of Youngkin’s tactic of aiming culture-war messaging (especially against critical race theory, which isn’t even taught in Virginia’s schools) at parents.

    However, Biberaj reportedly did not know who the man was; she simply accepted a referral for prosecution from the sheriff’s deputies who arrested him.

    Nonetheless, Youngkin’s placing blame for the incident on Biberaj led to multiple death threats against the prosecutor, as well as a deluge of articles from far-right hate sites due to her identity as a Muslim first-generation immigrant.

    In a sign of national momentum, the New Jersey gubernatorial race, which incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy had been expected to win comfortably, was still in a knife-edge count at publication time. [Update, November 4: Murphy did secure a narrow victory.]


    Minneapolis Keeps Its Police Department

    Despite the murder of George Floyd, Minneapolis residents voted to keep the Minneapolis Police Department the way it is, instead of creating a Department of Public Safety that would have included policing under its purview.

    This move would not have “abolished” the police, but would have been more similar to the rebranding measure that happened in Camden, New Jersey almost a decade ago. In theory, at least, it would have increased support for the unarmed alternative responder model for nonviolent emergency calls and community violence prevention efforts. Nonetheless, the result is a clear setback for the defund/abolition movement.

    Mayor Jacob Frey, who opposed disbanding the police department, gloated after he was seemingly re-elected last night, stating, “I think all of us can now stop with the hashtags and the slogans and the simplicity, and say let’s all unite around things that we all agree on.”

    Unfortunately, the moderate police reforms he has supported while in office, like the DOJ-sponsored National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice to improve police-community relations, have failed to make a substantial difference in the city. 


    Radical Bids Fall in Buffalo, Seattle

    In Buffalo, New York, self-identified democratic socialist India Walton defeated the incumbent mayor in the primary earlier this year. But that mayor, Byron Brown, staged a write-in campaign that apparently defeated Walton last night. Walton made public safety reform a major part of her campaign, and during the primary season she said she would “absolutely” support defunding the police.

    Across the country in Seattle, Republican Ann Davison bested Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, a former public defender who supports prison and police abolition, in the city attorney race. Leading up to the election, the city’s largest newspaper all but declared war on Thomas-Kennedy due to her inflammatory tweets about police officers. 


    Progressives See Bright Spots in Philly, NYC, Austin

    All of these outcomes sent shockwaves down the spines of Democrats, as well as spreading doubts on whether a large enough constituency supports substantial changes to the way criminal justice operates—at least in the way that such changes are currently being framed. But there were bright spots for progressives, even if they were mostly about not losing—rather than gaining—ground.

    In Philadelphia, for example, reformist District Attorney Larry Krasner staved off Charles Peruto, the Republican longshot in the heavily Democratic city. Peruto entered the race with the specific objective of ousting Krasner, and was less interested in actually becoming the new DA. The candidate was a registered Democrat who voted for Krasner in 2017, but he said he had “no idea he would turn out to be this liberal.”

    Meanwhile in New York City, Tiffany Caban, the abolitionist who nearly became Queens district attorney in 2019, won a city council seat. She hit the news just days ago for handing out “Defund the NYPD” merchandise.

    And while voters in Austin, Texas did not see defund or abolish the police on the ballot, they overwhelmingly rejected a measure to increase staffing at the Austin Police Department. 



    Photograph by Vox Efx via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Rory is the founding attorney of Fleming Law LLC, an immigration law boutique in Philadelphia. He has worked for a variety of criminal justice and harm reduction nonprofits, including Law Enforcement Action Partnership and Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, and provided campaign services for over a dozen district attorney campaigns. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic, Slate and many other outlets.

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