Mixed Outcomes in Two Big Prosecutor Races, But Reform Gains Nationwide

    Two things uppermost in voters’ minds this week were the COVID-19 pandemic and police violence in America. The restrictions of the first have not stopped the flow of the latter. It was only on October 26 that Philadelphia police officers shot dead Walter Wallace Jr., a young Black man in the midst of a mental health crisis. One officer reportedly told another, “Shoot him,” and while Wallace had a knife, he was at a distance and not poised to use it.

    For all of Trump’s sloganeering on supposed anarchy in the streets, it is not the President who decides what justice looks like for the officers involved in such killings. It is the local top prosecutors, generally called district attorneys, who make the calls.

    A DA’s mandate is to enforce the law according to justice in the larger community. If they fail, that constituency can usher in a replacement, because DAs are elected at the local level in 90 percent of states.

    Since 2015, DA seats have become an accelerator for change on the political left, which has grown tired waiting for legislative bodies to eschew police union influence and demand accountability.

    Today, prosecutors described as “progressive” sit in dozens of major county top prosecutor offices. While the obvious stakes of the presidential race have outshone the latest DA contests, these local elections can make an immediate impact on policing and justice for millions of people.

    The most high-profile prosecutor election this year was no doubt in Los Angeles County, where conservative Democratic incumbent Jackie Lacey faced a challenge from former San Francisco DA George Gascón, a moderate reformer (albeit LA voters’ options being unsatisfactorily limited).

    A May primary sent the pair into a top-two runoff, though Gascón obtained only 28.2 percent of the vote to Lacey’s 48.6 percent. Then, on May 25, George Floyd was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer, sparking a near-constant wave of protests over police violence ever since.

    Championing decarceration and police accountability, Gascón received massive financial backing from billionaire philanthropist George Soros. Ultimately, Gascón was able to garner 54 percent of the November 3 vote, meaning that he will become the next top prosecutor of America’s most populated county.

    Arizona, a state Biden seems likely to have flipped for Democrats in the presidential contest, saw another highly significant DA contest. Democrat Julie Gunnigle appears to have missed out on becoming the next top prosecutor of the state’s most populous county—Maricopa County, home to over four million people—by a razor-thin margin of 4,000 votes.

    If the result is confirmed, Gunnigle’s loss in Maricopa County represents a significant setback for reform.

    Gunnigle largely campaigned on criminal justice reform for low-level, nonviolent offenses, while proclaiming that she still would drop the hammer on people who commit acts of violence. The incumbent, Republican Allister Adel, just held off Gunnigle’s challenge, with 100 percent of votes reported.

    Adel was appointed in 2019 to replace Bill Montgomery, after Montgomery was tapped for a seat on the Arizona Supreme Court. She attempted to claim a more moderate reform mantle, despite her lack of action on police accountability and relatively orthodox tough-on-crime approach.

    A complication emerged on the night of November 3, when Adel was rushed to hospital to undergo emergency surgery for bleeding in the brain. Her condition was described on November 4 as “serious but stable.”

    If the result is confirmed, Gunnigle’s loss in Maricopa County represents a significant setback for reform. She could have joined new Pima County Attorney Laura Conover to dominate the ranks of Arizona’s prosecutors, as Pima and Maricopa Counties constitute the majority of the state’s population. That would have translated to sizable influence in the legislature—Arizona lawmakers seem to embrace reform only at the pace of these County Attorney offices, which were previously headed by two reactionary conservatives, Bill Montgomery and Barbara LaWall.

    Elsewhere, the most significant prosecutor races for reformers—such as the elections of Monique Worrell in Orlando, José Garza in Austin and Eli Savit in Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor), Michiganwere already effectively decided during the primary season, which pitted scores of conservative Democrats against progressive challengers. That said, finality in these contests is still important.

    Many such races ended favorably for the progressive challengers, and some victors have already made exciting promises. For example, Savit has promised to no longer prosecute psychedelics possession at the county level after an Ann Arbor City Council decriminalization vote

    New occupants in DA seats nationwide, most notably Prosecutor Savit, will soon be pushing the envelope on what it means to be a prosecutor fighting for criminal justice reform.



    Photo of George Gascón by Shawn Calhoun via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

    • 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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