Your Guide to 30 Sheriff and Prosecutor Elections That Could Challenge Mass Incarceration

These are the key local elections where criminal justice reform is on the line next month, around the country.

Daniel Nichanian   |    October 19, 2020

A Black Lives Matter Protest (yashmori on Flickr)

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

These are key local elections where criminal justice reform is on the line next month.

The summer’s renewed Black Lives Matter protests brought law enforcement and mass incarceration to the fore in national politics. But at the local level, advocates for criminal justice reform were already prepared to press for change in the 2020 elections.

In recent years, elections for prosecutor and sheriff have upended criminal legal systems around the country. Fueled by local organizing, this shift has brought into power public defenders, civil rights attorneys, and other candidates who are running on reducing incarceration. Emblematic results in big cities have drawn the most attention, but suburban and rural jurisdictions have joined the wave as well.

The Nov. 3 general elections feature new high-stakes showdowns in some of the nation’s most populous counties, including Los Angeles, Arizona’s Maricopa County, and Texas’s Tarrant County. These could bring the criminal legal system the biggest electoral upheaval it has seen to date, closing out a cycle that has already seen plenty of transformative results in primaries.

They will decide whether incoming county officials ever seek the death penalty, whether they prosecute simple drug possession and partner with ICE—just to name some frequent fault lines—and, more broadly, whether they pursue the idea that safety entails ramping up incarceration and policing or else that it calls for shrinking the imprint of the criminal legal system. Prosecutors and sheriffs, after all, exercise immense discretion locally, and they use their clout to influence statewide debates. 

Below I look at 30 of the most important sheriff and prosecutor elections on the ballot this fall.

To be clear, there are thousands of prosecutor and sheriff races this year. Most have drawn only one candidate—this dearth is especially pronounced in some states, such as Wisconsin—but there is still a dizzying number of contested elections. 

This article is born of a yearlong effort by The Appeal: Political Report to organize this chaos and identify the races with the farthest-reaching platforms, or the starkest contrasts. 

After all, it remains very infrequent for candidates in these elections to depart from a conventional tough-on-crime outlook and to be forthcoming about their policy views. This article is likely to not feature even populous jurisdictions with elections if none of the candidates are articulating a clear change from the status quo, opting for sparser counties where the stakes for mass incarceration are more concrete. Still, this list is not meant to be exhaustive; and it focuses on directing readers toward other reporting and analyses, on the Political Report and elsewhere. In addition, a myriad of other offices—including local judges, mayors, and the presidency—on the ballot this fall will shape the criminal legal system going forward.

Importantly, many people who are directly impacted by prosecutorial and law enforcement policies are barred from weighting into these elections due to the felony disenfranchisement rules that still exist in most U.S. states. The system is especially harsh in states that are overrepresented on this list, most notably Florida. On Nov. 3, Californians will decide whether to narrow their state’s disenfranchisement rules through a ballot initiative.

Let’s jump in. The 30 elections are arranged alphabetically by state; stay tuned below for other races to watch, and a review of what unfolded in the primaries.

1 and 2. Arizona | Maricopa County (Phoenix) county attorney and sheriff

Home to nearly 4.5 million residents, Maricopa County holds the keys to the White House and the U.S. Senate. But voters must also decide two high-stakes local elections. The sheriff’s election is the first since the 1980s to not feature Joe Arpaio, who is a prime example of the cruelties that sheriffs can unleash. But his legacy still looms large, Jerry Iannelli explains in his preview for the Political Report, because Republican nominee Jerry Sheridan used to be Arpaio’s deputy. If he beats first-term Democratic Sheriff Paul Penzone, he has said he would reopen Arpaio’s outdoor jail, bring back “posses” of armed civilians, and ramp up drug raids.

A long legacy of punitive policies and harsh sentences is also on the line in the county’s prosecutor election, Meg O’Connor previews in the Political Report. Republican Allister Adel has largely maintained the office’s status quo since she was appointed in 2019, and she fought decarcaral proposals when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Democratic challenger Julie Gunnigle, by contrast, has staked a goal of cutting incarceration by 25 percent, for instance by declining to prosecute a slate of lower-level offenses and not using certain charging practices that trigger higher sentences. As is, Arizona has one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates, which leaves a lot of room for change.

3. California | Los Angeles County DA

In March, Angelenos overwhelmingly adopted a ballot initiative to help lower their county’s jail population; county jails are plagued by dire conditions and overcrowding. Will they now also elect a district attorney who shares a decarceral perspective? They are choosing between DA Jackie Lacey and George Gascón, the former DA of San Francisco who authored a progressive measure statewide and is running to bring national reform efforts into LA. Gascón says he wants to slash incarceration, a goal Lacey rejects. Against the backdrop of yearslong local organizing, the two have clashed on the death penalty, police accountability, drug policy, and more. Eliyahu Kamisher previews the race in the Political Report.

4, 5, and 6. Colorado | First District, Eighth District, and 18th District DAs

Republican DAs are retiring in three populous districts, each of which was carried by Democrats in the 2016 presidential race, a recipe for wide-open general elections. Besides the prospect of partisan turnover, candidates have staked opposite stances on some major issues pertaining to criminal justice reform, as I reported in my dive into Colorado in September.

In the First District (Jefferson and Gilpin counties), Republican Matthew Durkin and Democrat Alexis King are worlds apart on whether to continue the punitive war on drugs. Durkin has said penalties for drug possession are too low, whereas King is looking to not prosecute such cases. “The criminal justice system has become the catchment basin for public health issues,” she said.

In the Eighth District (Jackson and Larimer counties), advocates have fought a $75 million project that will expand the jail by 250 beds. Republican Mitch Murray approves of the jail expansion, while Democrat Gordon McLaughlin would rather fight jail overcrowding by decreasing the pretrial population and steer the funds toward “substance abuse and mental health treatment.”

In the 18th District (Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert, and Lincoln counties), the retiring DA was a prominent defender of the death penalty and life without parole sentences for children. John Kellner, a Republican, has signaled he shares similar positions; Democrat Amy Padden approves of abolishing the death penalty and would like the legislature to curb life sentences.

7 and 8. Florida | Pinellas County and Brevard County sheriffs

Bob Gualtieri, Pinellas County’s GOP sheriff, is an influential figure in the state’s right-wing politics. He pushed to arm teachers after the Parkland shootings, and furthered ICE’s agenda in Florida. He now faces Democrat Eliseo Santana, who is calling for significant changes such as terminating contracts with ICE and reducing arrests. “An arrest can lead to greater insecurity, and with greater insecurity we have higher levels of crimes and violence,” he told me in a Q&A. Gualtieri, by contrast, helped ensure that Black Lives Matter protesters were denied bail in June.

In Republican-leaning Brevard County, the Marshall Project reports, the sheriff’s race pits a GOP incumbent known for “tough-on-crime viral videos” against a Democratic public defender. 

9 and 10. Florida | Ninth District (Orlando) and 13th District (Tampa) state attorneys

Florida’s two main prosecutor elections are less about whether criminal justice reform expands than they are a test of whether it retrenches. Back in 2016, the Ninth District (Orange and Osceola counties) elected Aramis Ayala as Florida’s first Black state attorney. But state officials pushed back hard against Ayala’s reforms, and she chose not to run for re-election; the shadow of this retaliation now looms over the race to replace her. Still, the Democratic primary ended with a win by Monique Worrell, the most progressive candidate, who ran with Ayala’s support. Worrell now faces independent Jose Torroella, who calls himself an  “old fashioned” and “law and order” candidate and says people should be prosecuted more harshly. 

In the 13th District (Hillsborough County), Republican challenger Mike Perotti, who works at the sheriff’s office, is running on a similar message of fear. He points to anecdotal instances of recidivism, a common but misleading tactic, to suggest current sentences are not harsh enough. His opponent, Democratic State Attorney Andrew Warren, has associated himself with other reform-minded prosecutors in the country; he touts his new conviction review unit, which this year exonerated a man who had spent 37 years in prison, as well as the process he set up to help Floridians with court debt regain the right to vote. 

11 and 12. Georgia | Cobb County and Gwinnett County sheriffs

The political context in these two populous suburbs of Atlanta is startlingly similar. In each, a Republican sheriff is running a jail mired by deaths, allegations of poor conditions, and contracts with ICE; in each, demographic change and a rising blue tide could usher in Democrats who have promised reforms, including terminating 287(g) contract with ICE. Timothy Pratt previewed these elections’ importance for immigration in the Political Report in September.

Jail conditions loom just as large. In the summer, when a woman died in the Cobb County jail, Democratic nominee Craig Owens said Sheriff Neil Warren “continues to show complete disregard” for the care of detainees. In response, Warren denied that sheriffs can make a difference when it comes to jail suicides. But sheriffs do plenty that aggravates the jail deaths crisis, including not enforcing care protocols and detaining people with mental health or substance use problems instead of diverting them to treatment. Just last week, a judge ruled that Warren was illegally refusing to disclose information about two deaths. And in Gwinnett, where Sheriff Butch Conway is retiring, the jail has faced allegations that it is failing to provide adequate care. 

13 and 14. Georgia | Clarke County sheriff, and Oconee and Clarke counties DA

One thing is certain in Athens-Clarke County: There will soon be a new sheriff in town. In June, Sheriff Ira Edwards lost to challenger John Williams in a Democratic primary that featured stark disagreements around Edwards’s past cooperation with ICE and his donations from the bail bond industry. Williams now faces Republican Robert Hare, who told me he has not yet decided whether he will honor ICE detainers. If elected Williams, wants to advance reform in Athens.

He may gain an ally in the local DA race, which almost did not occur. The state tried to delay the race until 2022, which would have enabled acting DA Brian Patterson to stay in office for two more years without facing voters. But judges recently reinstated the election. Deborah Gonzalez, a former state representative, is carrying the progressive mantle, promising to reduce the use of cash bail and decline to prosecute people over marijuana possession. She will face Patterson, who is a Democrat like Gonzalez but defends the status quo, and independent James Chafin.

15. Hawaii | Honolulu County prosecutor

Hawaii prosecutors have, in recent years, derailed criminal justice reforms, and the Honolulu election this year held the promise to change this punitive culture, I reported in July. The most progressive candidate, public defender Jacquie Esser, finished third in a seven-way primary and was cut from the “top two” runoff. Still, there are contrasts between the remaining contenders. Former judge Steve Alm touts his work to secure alternatives to incarceration, but his platform is vague and he did not respond to questions about his policy views in July and again this month. Morgan Kau, a former prosecutor and defense lawyer, has been more critical of reform goals. She has rejected the premise that Hawaii incarcerates too many people, denied that cash bail disadvantages poor defendants, and defended a carceral approach to drug offenses.

16 and 17. Illinois | Lake County and DeKalb County state’s attorneys

To win a second term, President Trump is betting that voters outside of the country’s biggest cities will react warily to Black Lives Matter. But protests have popped up in suburban and  exurban counties as well. Anna Wilhelmi, a Democratic attorney challenging DeKalb County’s chief prosecutor, Republican Rick Amato, says she is inspired by the protests. If elected, she told me in a Q&A, she would advocate for more funding for social services operating outside of law enforcement. “When you invest in your community, you get so much more back,” she said.

Close by, in Lake County, Michael Nerheim is running for re-election a year after his harsh decision to charge five minors with felony murder over a death during an attempted car theft. Nerheim, a Republican, ended up dropping the charges. Eric Rinehart, his Democratic challenger, criticized the charges and now wants Illinois to narrow its felony murder rule. In talking to the Political Report last year, he said he would tackle “structural failures” but was cautious when outlining how he would change local policy. He has indicated support for statewide reforms such as ending life without parole for minors and abolishing felony disenfranchisement. 

18. Kansas | Shawnee County (Topeka) DA

Will Trump’s persistent unpopularity in cities and suburban areas enable Democrats to break through in this typically GOP county? Republican DA Mike Kagay faces Democratic challenger Joshua Luttrell, a criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor who says he decided to run to advance criminal justice reform and to “challenge the idea of what a district attorney is.” In outlining his goal of reducing incarceration, he talks of not seeking cash bail for low-level offenses and reducing the length of sentences, stopping the prosecution of marijuana offenses, and not requiring a guilty plea as a condition for entry into diversion.

19. Louisiana | Orleans Parish (New Orleans) DA

Even punitive DAs take pains to cultivate some reform-friendly facade. Not so, or barely, with New Orleans’s Leon Cannizzaro, who is retiring. Local advocates are working to ensure his replacement unleashes change in New Orleans by demanding that candidates commit to a slate of reforms, such as never seeking the death penalty nor supporting sentencing rules that trigger harsher penalties. In previewing the election for the Political Report, Katie Fernelius draws out important contrasts between the contenders’ policies and records. (This election could go to a  runoff, on Dec. 5, if none of the candidates cross the 50 percent threshold on Nov. 3.)

20. Massachusetts | Norfolk County sheriff

Since his appointment as sheriff, Republican Jerry McDermott has put his stamp on statewide debates; he championed a ballot initiative to make it easier to cooperate with ICE, and spoke up in defense of qualified immunity, the doctrine that shields police officers from civil lawsuits. He also joined a pilot program to expand treatment options within the jail. Democratic challenger Patrick McDermott (no relation) wants to take the office in a different direction—on some issues. As I reported in August, he did not share his views on qualified immunity, but he opposes tighter ties with ICE, and wants more policies that ensure fewer people are arrested in the first place.

21 and 22. Michigan | Oakland County prosecutor and sheriff

Oakland County already voted for change in its Democratic primary for prosecutor: Jessica Cooper, the staunchly carceral incumbent, was defeated. She lost to Karen McDonald, a former judge who has pledged to cut incarceration, not seek cash bail, and not invoke prior convictions to increase sentences. McDonald now faces Republican Lin Goetz, a former prosecutor who defends a more punitive approach. In one recent interview, Goetz described cash bail as essential to public safety, denounced McDonald’s stated goal of decreasing incarceration, and followed Trump’s lead by invoking Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin, as boogeymen.

In the sheriff’s race, Republican incumbent Mike Bouchard has been a fixture in state politics for decades; he now faces Democrat Vincent Gregory, a former state senator and the former president of a local police union. A major fault line is their views on cooperating with ICE: Gregory told me that he would stop Bouchard’s practice of honoring ICE detainer requests. The Detroit Free Press also flags their differing records on marijuana; Bouchard is known for his team’s raids while Gregory championed marijuana legalization.

23 and 24. Ohio | Hamilton County (Cincinnati) prosecuting attorney and sheriff

Sheriff Jim Neil, a Democrat who has attended a Trump rally, cooperated with ICE, and backed the construction of a bigger jail, lost in a primary to Charmaine McGuffey. But Neil is not going off into the sunset; he threw his support to Republican Bruce Hoffbauer, who says on his website that he wants to ramp up prosecution over “street-level crimes” such as drug offenses, which could lead to increased arrests. McGuffey, by contrast, has signaled her support for reducing the incarcerated population, and she has vowed to no longer assist ICE in detaining people.

The prosecutor race has unfolded more straightforwardly. Republican incumbent Joe Deters faces Democrat Fanon Rucker, a former judge. Deters has borrowed from Trump’s rhetoric in casting himself as the bulwark for “law and order,” whereas Rucker says he will aim to decrease incarceration and end cash bail for low-level offenses. Rachel Cohen reported in the Political Report on one of the biggest issues in the race: the death penalty. Deters has amply used it over his tenure, while Rucker says he will never seek a death sentence and supports abolition.

25 and 26. South Carolina | Charleston County sheriff and Ninth Circuit solicitor

Black Lives Matter activism has built for years in and around Charleston, and this past summer only compounded the local grievances against persistent racial inequities in the legal system. Now, two longtime Republican officials—Al Cannon, Charleston’s sheriff since 1988, and Scarlett Wilson, the chief prosecutor of the Ninth Circuit (Charleston and Berkeley counties)—face spirited challenges on Nov. 3. 

Ben Pogue, Wilson’s Democratic challenger, says he is running for prosecutor to “shut off the mass incarceration mindset” and confront “systemic racism.” This would include changing office policies, such as no longer prosecuting marijuana possession and opposing some punitive bills that Wilson has championed; it would also mean tackling broader socioeconomic disparities. “If we continue thinking about justice as criminal justice, it’s not really justice,” he said. 

Kristin Graziano, Cannon’s Democratic challenger, has made it a core promise of her campaign for sheriff to terminate the incumbent’s multiple partnerships with ICE. This would end the county’s membership in ICE’s 287(g) program. Answering an ACLU questionnaire, Graziano also committed to instruct her deputies to arrest or cite fewer people for minor offenses, but also resisted other demands such as ending the presence of deputies in public schools.

27. Texas | Tarrant County (Fort Worth) sheriff

In this county of two million, Republican Sheriff Bill Waybourn has cheered on Trump’s immigration policies, overseen a jail mired by gruesome deaths, and contracted with ICE. But this long-conservative county is trending bluer, and local groups have organized for this shift to also bring change to local law enforcement policies. This has left Waybourn vulnerable against Democratic challenger Vance Keyes, who talks about reducing the jail population and ending the partnership with ICE. Teresa Mathew previews the election in the Political Report.

28 and 29. Texas | Harris County (Houston) sheriff and Nueces County (Corpus Christi) DA

In two Texas elections, Republicans are challenging Democratic incumbents by suggesting they’ve gone too far toward criminal justice reform. The elections serve as tests for the preliminary steps some Texas officials have taken to alleviate the criminal legal system’s harms. 

First up, the sheriff’s race in Harris County. Last year, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez broke with the county’s DA and threw his support behind a drastic restructuring of the county’s bail system. County officials had negotiated this legal settlement to provide for the pretrial release, with no cash condition, of most people charged with misdemeanors. The settlement was later approved, and early indications have shown success. Still, Gonzalez’s Republican challenger Joe Danna has repeatedly denounced the bail reform, citing anecdotal but misleading examples of recidivism. 

Further south, in Corpus Christi, Mark Gonzalez drew national headlines in 2016 when, as a defense attorney sporting a “Not Guilty” tattoo, he won the DA race. Gonzalez, a Democrat, soon announced he would stop jailing people for pot possession; but the scope of his reforms came under question, including in The Appeal. Still his Republican opponent, Jon West, has mostly signaled an interest to roll back Gonzalez’s reforms. In one interview, West even rejects the premise, to which a growing number of DAs at least pay lip service, that the criminal legal system’s punishments for low-level offenses are too harsh. “Just because somebody may have a low-level drug arrest does not mean they might not be a violent person,” he said.

30. Texas | Travis County (Austin) DA

José Garza could change the game in DA elections if he prevails next month. As a labor and immigrants’ rights attorney, and a former public defender, he has pushed his platform further than others by vowing to not prosecute possession and sales of drugs under one gram. “We use our criminal justice system like a rug that we sweep our problems underneath so we don’t have to look at them,” he told me in June, shortly before he beat the incumbent DA in the Democratic primary. He also vowed to never seek the death penalty, among other commitments. He next faces Republican Martin Harry in a Democratic jurisdiction. 

Watch also | There are many other elections all around the country.

Contested elections are brewing in many other populous jurisdictions, including prosecutorial races in Gwinnett County, Georgia, Johnson County, Kansas, Franklin County, Ohio, and Hillsborough and Merrimack counties in New Hampshire, as well as to sheriff races in Pima County, Arizona (Tucson), Oklahoma County, Oklahoma, and Fort Bend, Texas, to name only a few. And keep track of races in your backyard. 

Watch also | In Cook County and St. Louis, incumbents survived tough primaries and now face general elections

Kim Foxx and Kim Gardner, the chief prosecutors of Cook County (Chicago) and St. Louis, won on reform-minded platforms in 2016. Both prevailed in bruising primaries this year; for Gardner, this was against the backdrop of years of attacks by the GOP officials who run Missouri. Foxx and Gardner are now favored on Nov. 3 since these counties lean heavily Democratic. Advocates are pushing Foxx and Gardner to go further with reforms against incarceration in their second terms.

Watch also | Elections have been happening all year. There are already many winners.

Many candidates won primaries this year on platforms of reducing incarceration or upending law enforcement, and now they face no opponents in the general elections. They are virtually certain to secure formal victories next month.

In Arizona’s Pima County (Tucson), former public defender Laura Conover will replace a prosecutor who implemented punitive practices. In Colorado’s San Luis Valley, Alonzo Payne ousted a sitting DA in a primary; he stresses that fighting poverty is indispensable to ending mass incarceration. In New York’s Westchester County, Mimi Rocah beat an incumbent who was relying on police officers who were framing defendants; Rocah’s only general election opponent dropped out in September. In Oregon’s Multnomah County (Portland), Mike Schmidt ran on advancing decarceral policies in a state where prosecutors have been largely resistant to change; Schmidt has already taken office. In Michigan’s Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor), finally, Eli Savit ran on never requesting cash bail, amid other decarceral commitments. 

“This is a movement,” Savit told me right after his win in August. He cheered the collapse of the expectation that “the only way” to win these county elections “was to be tough on crime.” 

Nov. 3 is the next test for this movement, which is already past the point of needing to prove itself.