The Prosecutorial Chronicles, Dec. 2019 edition: A Tale of Political Contrasts

Some prosecutors speak up for ending disenfranchisement and sending their staff to visit prisons, while a Pennsylvania DA sought to block a release.

Daniel Nichanian   |    December 12, 2019

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

Checking-in on the politics of prosecutors: A Pennsylvania DA sought to block a release, while some prosecutors speak up for abolishing disenfranchisement and sending their staff to visit prisons

Support bubbles up for ending felony disenfranchisement

New bills to end felony disenfranchisement are “one piece of how the criminal legal system can make room for every person’s  humanity and political agency,” I wrote on Nov. 22. Sarah Fair George, a prosecutor in Vermont, told me, “If more district attorneys, mayors, governors or attorney generals, knew that every inmate could vote in their elections, they may … even treat them with some respect.”

In response to the article, a number of prosecutors amplified George’s remarks or else endorsed ending disenfranchisement: Marilyn Mosby (Maryland), Rachael Rollins (Massachusetts), Justin Kollar (Hawaii), and Parisa Dehghani-Tafti  (Virginia). “There are no valid basis for denying incarcerated people voting rights,” tweeted Dehghani-Tafti. (Update: Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner also endorsed the idea on Dec. 14. “In 2020, let’s recommit to finally severing Jim Crow from our present, including by ending the evils of voter suppression and disenfranchisement.”)

DA hopefuls joined in as well. “Laws disenfranchising incarcerated people are rooted in racism,” New York lawmaker Dan Quart, who is challenging Manhattan DA Cy Vance in 2021 tweeted; Janos Marton, another Vance challenger, backs ending this as well. Eli Savit, running in Washtenaw County (Michigan), and Julie Gunnigle, running in Maricopa County (Arizona), also tweeted support. 

These remarks are interesting, not because this debate should center on DAs’ views, but because they testify to the shifting ground, both in terms of who is winning DA elections, and of the growing public visibility of proposals to abolish disenfranchisement.

After the governor commuted a man’s life sentence, a Pennsylvania DA tried to keep him detained

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, commuted the life sentences of eight people last week. All had unanimous recommendations from the Board of Pardons, a body that had largely ground to a halt for decades. 

Katayoun Copeland (Delaware County DA Facebook)

Among them is David Sheppard, who was incarcerated for 25 years for felony murder. But Delaware County District Attorney Katayoun Copeland promptly sought to keep him detained by reviving old shoplifting charges. Copeland, a Republican, denounced “the current climate of the criminal justice system” in which “convicted felons are being empowered and extended leniency.”

But voters approved a change of “culture” in November when they ousted Copeland and voted in Jack Stollsteimer, a Democrat who ran on a reform platform. Stollsteimer told me on Sunday that “this looks to be a meritless prosecution being brought as a political stunt.” 

Copeland’s office did not seek bail on Monday, and Sheppard was released. The shoplifting charges remain, though. Stollsteimer told CBS that “based on the facts I know right now, we would dismiss the prosecution” when he takes office in January. 

These events come amid a multi-front movement against death by incarceration in Pennsylvania, which has one of the nation’s largest share of its prisoners serving life sentences. Legislation to expand parole has stalled so far. Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman is also proposing to loosen the rules of the Board of Pardons, which he chairs.

Dozens of prosecutors pledge to send their staff to prison

Thirty-nine elected prosecutors signed a new pledge to visit a prison with their staff last week. Jails and prisons can be “violent and unhealthy places,” the letter states. “We cannot ignore the fact that the conditions we subject people to necessarily impact them, their families, and the health and safety of our communities.” It adds that this initiative could spark “support for criminal justice reforms.”

Besides sitting prosecutors like Satana Deberry (North Carolina) or Wesley Bell (Missouri), the list includes eight people who just won in November in California (Chesa Boudin), Mississippi (Shameca Collins and Daniella Shorter), Pennsylvania (Jack Stollsteimer), and Virginia (Buta Biberaj, Dehghani-Tafti, and Jim Hingeley). This speaks to the movement’s 2019 successes in broadening the geography of decarceration.

In August, I interviewed George, the Vermont prosecutor, about her policy of requiring that her staff visit a prison. What made her remarks striking is that she framed her goal, beyond building awareness of prison conditions, as transforming concrete prosecutorial practices and getting prosecutors to seek incarceration less frequently (or in smaller sentences). “They spent an hour and a half there and were relieved to get out,” she said. “So let’s imagine how this might impact somebody who is there for six months or a year… Is there a way that we can avoid that entirely, and not risk them coming out a more violent person or with some type of trauma having been in jail? Can we find another way?”

Larry Krasner unveils new drug policy in Philadelphia

Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner will divert all simple drug possession, Samantha Melamed reports: The policy is to “withdraw charges for those who show proof they’re in drug treatment” and “to start all possession cases on a diversionary track, connecting defendants to court-accredited treatment providers.” Convictions in such cases are down 45 percent since Krasner became DA. His office now expects a bigger drop. Critics told Melamed that implementation has been uneven, and that more should be done to not arrest and not criminalize people for any drug possession. 

At a rally held in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, President Trump attacked Krasner as “the worst district attorney. ” This came days after Trump’s White House meeting with John McNesby, the president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, and one of Krasner’s biggest local foes.

Eye on 2020: Prosecutors up for re-election next year champion the death penalty and life without parole for minors, mishandle sexual assault cases, and more

In my first preview of the 2020 DA races, I wrote that many elections will take place in counties where DAs have amassed a punitive record. Since then, new stories have piled up on the records of prosecutors who are up for re-election in 2020. 

Kansas and Texas: Women who try to report sexual assault in Lawrence, Kansas, are frequently doubted and retraumatized, Katie Bernard reports in a remarkable Kansas City Star story. Bernard found that Douglas County DA Charles Branson has repeatedly charged women with falsely reporting an assault. In Texas, Travis County (Austin) DA Margaret Moore faces a lawsuit that alleges she is mishandling sexual assault incidents, Kira Lerner reports in The Appeal. Branson and Moore are both Democrats up for re-election in 2020.

Michigan: Since the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life without the possibility of parole for minors, states have had to review the sentences of their juvenile lifers. But Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reports in The Appeal that Oakland County prosecutor Jessica Cooper has asked courts to reimpose the sentence in 43 out of 48 cases eligible for review. The ACLU’s Udi Ofer called this “inhumane and cruel.” (Karen McDonald, who is challenging her in the 2020 Democratic primary, did not commit to a ban on life without parole sentences for minors.) By contrast, Ingham County (Lansing) prosecutor Carol Siemon said she would never seek life without the possibility of parole sentences for minors; she supported the resentencing of the county’s two juvenile lifers.

Ohio: The prosecutors of Ohio’s two biggest counties are staunch death penalty proponents, Joshua Vaughn reports in The Appeal. Ron O’Brien, the Republican DA of Franklin County (Columbus), and Michael O’Malley, the Democratic DA of Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), have frequently asked for the death penalty. (Both are up for re-election in 2020.) This year, they also lobbied against a bipartisan bill that would have banned the death penalty for people with a mental illness at the time of the crime; the bill passed the GOP-run House, then stalled. 

Texas: Harris County (Houston) commissioners rejected DA Kim Ogg’s request to hire 102 additional prosecutors in February; advocates argued her office is filing too many charges, and that more staff would only grow the number of prosecutions. Ogg has since obtained approval to hire 11 new prosecutors and attorneys. And this week she requested a budget increase of $7.4 million to hire 58 prosecutors. Audia Jones, who is challenging Ogg in the 2020 Democratic primary, said in response that she would “lower caseloads” by not prosecuting drug possession, sex work and “offenses that target poverty.” She told me that category covers “criminal trespass not involving dwellings,” and “low-level theft that involve crimes of necessity.”