For Decarceration, Election Results Bring One Big Win and Some Prolonged Suspense

Austin, Houston, and Los Angeles voted on Super Tuesday, with stakes for incarceration and criminal justice reform.

Daniel Nichanian   |    March 6, 2020

Travis County DA Margaret Moore (LBJ Presidential Library/Flickr)

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

Progressives forced Austin’s district attorney into a runoff while the DA race remains uncertain in Los Angeles, where voters also approved an initiative promoting jail reduction. In Houston, the DA defeated challengers from her left.

On Tuesday, Los Angeles residents overwhelmingly approved Measure R, an initiative that directs a local commission to devise a plan to reduce the county’s jail population and to reinvest the funds currently being thrown into detaining people into community services. 

The county currently allocates a $3.5 billion budget to its sheriff’s department (LASD), which runs the jail system and has been rocked by scandals about policing brutality. 

Measure R also empowers the commission to directly issue subpoenas and compel disclosures while investigating the LASD. The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs opposed it; Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who has reinstated deputies previously fired for misconduct, also stated opposition

“We were knocking on doors, making phone calls since last year,” said Leslie Estrada Flynn, an organizer with the “Yes on R” campaign. “We did this for the folks who’ve had loved ones harmed by sheriff abuse, and we did it for our friends and families still inside our jails.”

Estrada Flynn cast Measure R as a paradigm shift in Los Angeles. “We have seen thousands and thousands of people, especially Black and Latino people, who have been sent to jail over these issues that shouldn’t have landed them there in the first place,” she said. “It’s been especially important to lift up the voices of those who have gotten out.” Measure R made it onto the ballot through a petition drive undertaken by the organization Reform LA Jails.

The commission’s decarceral plan would serve as recommendation to the county’s board of supervisors; they would not be obliged to adopt it. But Measure R’s supporters claim a popular mandate to shift resources away from incarceration and they vow to keep organizing. As of publication, Measure R had secured 71 percent of the counted vote.

Measure R was only one of Super Tuesday’s elections with stakes for decarceration.

In three of the nation’s biggest counties, incumbent DAs faced multiple challengers from the left who ran on decreasing prosecutions and cutting prison admissions; in each of these elections, the leading candidate needed to get 50 percent to avoid heading into a “Top Two” runoff.

In Travis County, Texas (Austin), DA Margaret Moore was forced into a May runoff; two challengers who each ran on major progressive change combined for 59 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. 

Results remain incomplete, and uncertain, in Los Angeles County. More than 800,000 ballots remain to be counted as of publication. They will decide if DA Jackie Lacey, who faced no opponent four years ago, finishes above 50 percent and secures a third term; that would be a defeat for those in the reform movement who cast this race as one of 2020’s most important. If she finishes under 50 percent, she would face an uncertain runoff; at this stage, it would likely be against former San Francisco DA George Gascón.

In Harris County (Houston), by contrast, DA Kim Ogg defeated progressive challengers and secured the Democratic nomination with 55 percent of the vote, as The Appeal reported Wednesday. Her leading opponent Audia Jones ran on decreasing the prosecution of low-level offenses, supporting the county’s cash bail reform, which Ogg has fought against, and opposing the death penalty. Ogg is favored to win re-election in November.

Travis County will remain squarely in the spotlight in coming months, at least.

In the Democratic primary, Moore, the incumbent DA, came in second (41 percent) behind José Garza (44 percent), a labor and immigrant rights attorney with the Workers Defense Project who was endorsed by the Working Families Party and by Democratic U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Erin Martinson, who also ran on a reform platform, received 15 percent.

Garza and Moore will now face one another in a May runoff, where the turnout will likely be lower, to secure the Democratic nomination; the winner will likely be favored in November’s general election in this blue county. The runoff should be marked by major policy disagreements. Garza, who has said he is “running for DA to build a system that lifts up working people and people of color,” has committed to not prosecute the possession or the sale of under one gram of any drug. His policy aims to take substance use out of the criminal legal system, and goes a step beyond what we often see from progressive DA candidates, by applying it to low-level sales.

The Appeal reported on Monday on Moore’s record of prosecuting low-level drug cases. “People are getting picked up, arrested, booked into the jail, and then staying way too long for anybody [whose] quote-unquote crime is an illness, is a disease, is a disorder,” said Rhiannon Hamam, a defense attorney. In response, Moore touted her use of drug court and post-arrest diversion; her critics say diversion must come before people are arrested and potentially saddled with a record.

Garza has said he would end the requirement that people plead guilty as a condition of entry into diversion programs, while Moore has said this is important for people to “claim responsibility.” 

In addition, Garza has committed to never seek the death penalty and has called for a full end to the use of cash bail, in both cases in contrast to Moore. 

In Los Angeles County’s nonpartisan election, meanwhile, Lacey has 50 percent of the vote as of publication; that includes the count of nearly 1.3 million ballots, about 60 percent of the expected total. Gascón stands at 27 percent. Rachel Rossi, a former public defender, has 23 percent. 

If there were to be a runoff, it would take place in November, among a far larger pool of voters.

And it would feature a stark political contrast on the desirability of policies that fuel or restrict incarceration. Lacey has defended comparatively punitive policies as a matter of holding people accountable for “making some very bad choices,” while Gascón had argued that conventional practices set people up to fail and foster cycles of recidivism. The DA’s office is too prone to “use the most expensive and the most intrusive tools of the criminal justice system to deal with every behavior, and that is prosecution and incarceration” he told me in a January Q&A. In that interview, Gascón noted that Los Angeles’s incarceration rate is four times higher than San Francisco’s, where he was the DA from 2011 to 2019, and he committed to decreasing prison admissions by 20 percent in his first year. He said he would end the criminalization of acts linked to mental health and homelessness, stop prosecuting sex workers, and set up mechanisms to review sentencing recommendations that are longer than 20 years. 

Gascón and Rossi campaigned on a similar platform, but each emphasized their different backgrounds; Rossi touted the value that her experience as a public defender would have in upending prosecutorial norms. Both said they were running to bring the progressive prosecution movement into Los Angeles.

On the Friday before the election, Gascón unveiled a goal of getting all 229 people who are on the county’s death row resentenced; Lacey has frequently sought the death penalty.

Super Tuesday’s final major DA election was in El Paso County, Texas. But this open race drew no candidate who ran on overhauling the system. Assistant prosecutor James Montoya and Yvonne Rosales, an attorney, moved on to a runoff. In answering my questions in January, both resisted expressing support for wide-ranging transformation. Rosales said a DA must “balance” defendants’ rights and public safety, a tension that progressive DAs elsewhere have rejected, and she questioned the view that “small amounts of marijuana” are “harmless.” Montoya said he did not view his county’s system as “excessively punitive.”

Austin, and perhaps Los Angeles, will see a DA runoff fought on decarceral questions. In both cases, these debates are occuring in the wake of organizing efforts that have targeted local jails.

“What we’ve seen is a rising movement of people wanting to have a different set of conditions for Black communities, poor communities, and brown communities, especially in Los Angeles County,” Patrisse Cullors, the Los Angeles-based co-founder of Black Lives Matter and who led efforts to put Measure R on the ballot, told me last week.

In 2019, with Cullors’s involvement, the JusticeLA coalition got the board of supervisors to stop a $2.2 billion contract for a new detention facility.

That’s the same political body that will review the civilian commission’s recommendations about reinvesting resources away from the jail.

Austin, too, has been the site of major political battles over criminalization. 

Chris Harris, an Austin organizer and criminal justice reform advocate, said in response to the results: “In recent years, there’s been a consistent effort to unite in struggle people directly impacted by the criminal punishment and immigration systems, which has helped lead to a string of successful campaigns that have kept the injustices of these systems in the spotlight and animated a newly energized left to knock on a lot of doors for candidates promising change.”

As an example, he mentioned the campaign to replace some arrests with citations. Besides keeping people out of jail, such reforms protect people from ICE, as the federal government uses local jail bookings to identify potential undocumented immigrants and request their detention.

Advocates hope that successes in pushing for local reform will resonate elsewhere. There are now protests against an expansion similar to Los Angeles’s in neighboring Orange County, and the battle over granting subpoena power to an oversight commission, as Measure R just did in Los Angeles, is playing out around the country

“I hope folks in other cities are watching and that this trend of reform continues across the state and across the country,” said Estrada Flynn of the “Yes on R” campaign.