Nine Elections This Week Could Upend Criminal Justice Nationwide

From Aug. 4 to Aug. 8, keep an eye on Arizona, Hawaii, Kansas, Michigan, and Missouri.

Daniel Nichanian   |    August 3, 2020

Kim Gardner (Gardner/Facebook)

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

For anyone looking to upend the criminal legal system via the ballot box, the 2020 elections have already brought major results in Austin, Texas, in Athens, Georgia, in Cincinnati, and in Portland, Oregon. And the district attorney in Westchester County, New York, became the first DA toppled in part over his record on police misconduct since the killing of George Floyd. 

But the year’s most condensed stretch of primary elections with direct stakes for the criminal legal systems is coming up this week.

Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and Missouri finish voting on Tuesday, and Tennessee on Thursday. Hawaii’s elections end on Saturday. In that stretch, we will know if Sheriff Joe Arpaio completed the first step of his comeback bid in Arizona’s Maricopa County, if the St. Louis and Detroit prosecutors secured new terms, if roughly 270,000 people in Missouri gained Medicaid access, and much more.

The Appeal: Political Report has published primers on six of these races. Here’s a recap to prepare for what is ahead this week—and a bonus overview of three other elections that are worth watching on Tuesday.

Missouri: A public initiative could expand Medicaid and curb the overdose crisis

Amendment 2 | Aug. 4

Missouri voters will decide on Aug. 4 whether to expand the state’s Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, which could grant public health insurance to an additional 270,000 state residents. (Oklahomans narrowly approved a similar initiative in June.) If Amendment 2 passes, Missouri could take a new approach to the overdose crisis by “steering more resources toward treatment programs that can counter criminalization,” Zachary Siegel reports in The Appeal: Political Report. “A high percentage of people incarcerated have a substance use disorder diagnosis and could benefit from treatment instead of going to jail.”

Read Zachary Siegel in The Appeal: Political Report.

Maricopa County, Arizona: The terrain is rapidly changing in a bastion of punitive politics

County attorney | Aug. 4 (Democratic primary)

A string of public officials have made Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and to nearly 4.5 million people, one of the nation’s bastions of carceral politics. But now Democrats have the chance to flip the prosecutor’s office and to overhaul the county’s sentencing and charging practices. The Aug. 4 Democratic primary is only the first act in this election, since the winner will then face the Republican incumbent, Alistair Adel, in November. But the result will determine the stakes of the general election, since the three Democratic candidates are laying out reform proposals of varying scope.

Julie Gunnigle, a former prosecutor, and Will Knight, a former public defender, have vowed to end some of the harshest charging and sentencing practices; Knight is the only candidate to commit to decline to prosecute all personal drug possession cases, and to advocate for shrinking the resources of the prosecutor’s office in a bid to shrink the criminal legal system.

Read Meg O’Connor’s primer on the candidate’s platforms, and her reporting on Gunnigle’s background as a prosecutor.

Pima County, Arizona: A battle over whether the prosecutor’s office needs an outsider

County attorney | Aug. 4 (Democratic primary)

During her 24 years as the chief prosecutor of Pima County, Barbara LaWall pursued punitive policies and helped fill state prisons. She is stepping down this year. Whether that coincides with policies more amenable to criminal justice reform remains to be seen. Three Democrats are running to replace her, and they are debating how their professional backgrounds shape their credibility to overhaul criminal justice in Pima County. Two candidates are longtime prosecutors; a third is a former public defender who is highlighting that experience as a strength. “They need a person from outside to shift that culture,” she said.

Read Meg O’Connor in The Appeal: Political Report

Wayne County, Michigan (Detroit): A stark contrast on whether children should be sentenced to life without parole

Prosecutor | Aug. 4 (Democratic primary)

Twenty-three states have banned sentences of life without the possibility of parole for children, but in Michigan these remain common. Now they are defining the prosecutor’s election in Wayne County. Longtime incumbent Kym Worthy has taken a hardline approach, while her challenger in the Democratic primary, Victoria Burton-Harris, has vowed to fight for the resentencing of all juvenile lifers currently in prison. Burton-Harris has also vowed to make a slate of other changes, including not using sentencing enhancements, not prosecuting simple drug possession cases, and never charging overdoses as homicides.

Read Kira Lerner in The Appeal: Political Report.

St. Louis, Missouri: A prosecutor faces voters after years of attacks from the police union

Circuit attorney | Aug. 4 (Democratic primary)

Kim Gardner won the St. Louis prosecutor’s race in 2016 on a platform of holding the police more accountable. Since then, she has sustained continual fire from the local police union and from Missouri’s Republican officials. In the Aug. 4 Democratic primary, she faces a rematch against a former prosecutor whom she defeated four years ago, but a lot has changed in the intervening years. “Nationwide political shifts toward criminal justice reform have emboldened activists to expect more from Gardner, and they have pushed [her opponent, Mary Pat Carl] to soften her language compared to 2016,” Rachel Cohen reports. “Still, local activists view this race as a referendum on the fierce pushback that Gardner has faced.”

Read Rachel Cohen in The Appeal: Political Report. 

Honolulu County, Hawaii: Open prosecutor race could flip the state’s punitive culture

Prosecutor | Aug. 8

Keith Kaneshiro, Honolulu’s chief prosecutor, has a history of derailing criminal justice reform, but he is not seeking re-election due to a major corruption scandal. This has opened the door to an upheaval in the state’s criminal justice politics. The seven candidates vying to replace him differ sharply on whether they would change this punitive culture; one has called for the state to overhaul policies that fuel mass incarceration. Jacquie Esser hopes Honolulu will join the nationwide wave of counties that have been electing public defenders as decarceral prosecutors, and her platform echoes that of Chesa Boudin, who became San Francisco’s DA in January. The Aug. 8 elections will likely decide the two candidates who move to a November runoff.

Read The Appeal: Political Report’s primer.

Bonus: Also watch these three Aug. 4 races

Maricopa County, Arizona | Sheriff (Republican primary)

Will Joe Arpaio complete the first step of his attempted comeback? As Maricopa County sheriff for 24 years—from 1993 until losing a bid for re-election in 2016—Joe Arpaio detained people in horrid conditions that were continually denounced for human rights abuses. He held immigrants outdoors, often in blistering heat and in chain gangs, or in a facility known as Tent City that he called a “concentration camp.” He oversaw a string of gruesome jail deaths. And he assisted federal immigration enforcement, conducting street patrols that courts and government reports found amounted to systematic racial profiling. After Arpaio ignored rulings that he must stop racial profiling, a judge found him guilty of contempt of court. But President Trump pardoned him in 2017. Arpaio, who lost his re-election bid in 2016, is now attempting a comeback. On Aug. 4, he faces a GOP primary against two opponents (Mike Crawford and Jerry Sheridan, his former deputy). The GOP nominee will then face Sheriff Paul Penzone, the Democrat who ousted Arpaio four years ago and then promptly undid his signature policies, including closing Tent City and restricting cooperation with ICE.

Douglas County, Kansas (Lawrence) | Prosecutor (Democratic primary)

A defense attorney, Cooper Overstreet, is running for DA in Lawrence, Kansas, against longtime incumbent Charles Branson, Akela Lacy reports in The Intercept. The differences between the candidates are on full display in the prosecutor’s office’s treatment of a 2014 murder case, Katie Moore and Katie Bernard report in the Kansas City Star.

Washtenaw County, Michigan (Ann Arbor) | Prosecutor (Democratic primary)

Three Democrats are vying to replace Ann Arbor’s retiring prosecutor in the Aug. 4 primary, which will also determine who wins in November. All three promise to change county practices, but disagreements emerged in the policy questions the Political Report asked them. Eli Savit said he would never seek life without parole for minors; his two opponents, Hugo Mack and Arianne Slay, left the door open to such charges. Savit also said he would “generally” decline to prosecute cases relating to addiction rather than pursue diversion programs within the criminal legal system (but he did not provide a commitment as to the exact circumstances this “generally” covers). And he vowed to never seek cash bail, which his opponents say runs counter Michigan’s current statutes on pretrial detention, which they say they favor reforming. Of interest: All three said they favored abolishing criminal disenfranchisement and not stripping people of the right to vote, including when they are prison—rare unanimity on this issue in a DA election, though a growing number of prosecutors are embracing this view.

Stay tuned for Florida’s Aug. 18 elections, and explore our ongoing coverage of the 2020 local elections.