Voters Beyond Big Cities Rejected Mass Incarceration in Tuesday’s Elections

A wave of progressive candidates prevailed in elections for prosecutor, overhauling the politics of criminal justice in Virginia and beyond.

Daniel Nichanian   |    November 7, 2019

(Photo via Jim Hingeley’s Commonwealth’s Attorney Campaign/Facebook)|

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

A wave of progressive candidates prevailed in elections for prosecutor, overhauling the politics of criminal justice in Virginia and beyond.

The movement to elect prosecutors intent on fighting mass incarceration has been largely associated with big cities like Chicago and Philadelphia until now. But it broke new ground on Tuesday when a wave of decarceral candidates won in suburban or rural counties across the nation. 

The Election Day results overhauled Virginia’s landscape in particular, broadening the geography of decarceration, and paving the way for advocates to scale up county-level reform into demands for statewide change.

“This is a great opportunity to band together with other reform-minded prosecutors to really move criminal justice reform, not only in our jurisdiction but around the state,” Steve Descano, who won in Fairfax County, outside of Washington D.C., told the Appeal: Political Report after his win on Tuesday night. “I’m very gratified that so many of my reform-minded colleagues will be joining me.”

Descano prevailed alongside other progressive Virginia candidates, including Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, a former public defender who won in Arlington County on a platform of “dismantling” mass incarceration. Albemarle County, which surrounds but does not contain Charlottesville, elected Jim Hingeley, a longtime public defender who describes incarceration as “family separation.” 

“Ending mass incarceration was communicated as the campaign’s number one priority,” Hingeley told the Political Report. He called his win a “bellwether to test whether the progressive prosecutor movement spreads and takes root” in counties “outside Virginia’s urban crescent.” He opened the county’s public defender office in 1998, and led it through 2016.

“It’s not a moment, it’s a movement,” Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, tweeted Tuesday in response to Hingeley’s win. One of the country’s most emblematic reform prosecutors, Krasner has been comparatively isolated within Pennsylvania.

All three of these Virginia candidates ousted incumbents this year, two in a Democratic primary and one in the general election, an unusual feat. 

All three are also Democrats, and their wins coincide with Democrats gaining control of the state government for the first time since 1993. The legislature could tackle proposals to decriminalize pot, restrict disenfranchisement, lessen sentencing guidelines and felony thresholds, and strengthen discovery rules. For prosecutors to actively support such changes would break the traditional mold of criminal justice politics. “The Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorney (VACA) is down in Richmond every single day of session, and opposes reform after reform after reform, and these bills get killed,” Dehghani-Tafti told the Political Report in February, a pattern that mirrors the dynamic in other states.

Descano has vowed to to put together a “coalition” that would “act as a counterpoint” to VACA. “I will bring to bear the coalition I have built to go down and say, ‘Hey, legislators, you’ve heard this regressive view of the world. Let me tell you a progressive view of what justice should be,’” he said in March. Dehghani-Tafti and Hingeley have expressed similar goals. 

They could join Stephanie Morales, the commonwealth’s attorney of Portsmouth, who has drawn attention for her response to police violence, as well as two other incoming prosecutors who won hotly contested elections in suburban Virginia on Tuesday: Buta Biberaj in Loudoun County and Amy Ashworth in Prince William County. Biberaj and Ashworth also campaigned on redefining what goes into public safety and on reforming their local systems, though they staked less far-reaching positions on some key issues. Ashworth will replace the retiring Paul Ebert, who served as Prince William County’s punitive and controversial prosecutor for 51 years.

And it’s not just Virginia. Elsewhere across the country, rural and suburban electorates voted to rethink the priorities of the local prosecutor. 

In the Philadelphia suburbs, Jack Stollsteimer, a Democrat, beat a Republican DA on Tuesday and will be the next prosecutor of populous Delaware County. He proposed a 10-point “Smart on Crime” platform, and has advocated for deprivatizing the local jail. 

In Mississippi’s comparatively rural southwest corner, Shameca Collins emphasized reducing incarceration while running for DA of the Sixth District (Adams, Amite, Franklin, and Wilkinson counties). She defeated Ronnie Harper, a longtime incumbent with a history of fighting reforms, in the August Democratic primary. She was unopposed on Tuesday.

“Right now, we are one of the highest incarceration states,” Collins told the Political Report on Wednesday. “We can use that money in other areas that can benefit the communities, like education, infrastructure, and healthcare.” She mentioned a need to expand medical insurance for people who face mental health or substance abuse issues to afford treatments.

She will join Mississippi’s Scott Colom, who in 2015 became one of the main reform-minded DAs serving in a primarily nonurban jurisdiction. Colom, who like Collins is African-American, won a second term unopposed this week. A third candidate who ran on a progressive platform, Jody Owens, is set to become the next DA of Hinds County, which includes Jackson. He was unopposed in the general election. The Appeal reported in October that Owens faces a series of allegations of sexual harassment.

In Kentucky, which voted for President Trump by 30 percentage points in 2016, Andy Beshear claimed victory in the governor’s race on Tuesday. He ran on restoring the voting rights of approximately 140,000 people with past criminal convictions, and he repeated that promise in his Election Night speech. African Americans, who are subject to harsher policing and prosecution, make up a disproportionate share of the disenfranchised Kentuckians.

These incoming officials made varying sets of commitments, such as never seeking the death penalty (a position shared by Dehghani-Tafti, Descano, and Hingeley), not prosecuting people for marijuana possession, filing more cases at the misdemeanor level rather than the more severe felony level, and reforming the bail system. Ashworth, for instance, told me she would “stop the use of cash bail to reduce the jail population.” 

Many of them share a goal of reducing the volume of convictions by setting up new or expanded pretrial diversion programs. These are programs, usually reserved for lower-level cases, through which prosecutors agree to drop cases if defendants complete a series of steps. (This contrasts with the diversion programs that provide lower penalties but require a guilty plea as a condition of access.) This lets people “not have that record that follows them around,” Descano said. 

When I asked Dehghani-Tafti what Tuesday means for reform, she outlined a manifesto of sorts. She said that it “means we are ready to consider these basic principles: not every problem needs to be criminalized; not every crime has to lead to punishment; not every punishment has to result in incarceration; and not every instance of incarceration has to be so punitive that it makes no room for rehabilitation. … I am excited to join other reformers to begin that work.”

They also made a case that current practices harm communities. Biberaj argued that the probation system fuels incarceration because it is designed to trip people up. “That doesn’t make our community safe,” she said. Descano echoed her message on Tuesday, saying, “You don’t have to choose between safety and justice.”

The country’s most visible DA races this year did take place in some of its largest cities: New York City and San Francisco. Those grabbed the nation’s attention, due in part to the decarceral platforms of public defenders Tiffany Cabán in Queens and Chesa Boudin in San Francisco. 

Melinda Katz won in Queens on Tuesday, five months after securing the Democratic nomination against Cabán, during which she was pushed to the left on issues such as bail. She has pledged to create the borough’s first conviction integrity unit. In San Francisco, Tuesday’s election remains too close to call between Boudin and Suzy Loftus, who became interim DA in mid-October. 

But it is just outside of these cities that the 2019 elections will leave their biggest marks.

“We know that if the movement is going to flourish outside of big cities, it’s going to have to work in places like Fairfax Counties,” said Descano. “I think people will see this victory, and this movement will spread to other large suburban jurisdictions across the country. 

He added, “Yes, to some degree urban jurisdictions are different. But opponents of the movement have tried to make hay of these differences and tried to use coded language, and express language, to stop progressive reform in its tracks.” 

Descano was alluding to attempts by opponents of criminal justice reform to associate crime and reform alike with cities that are often more racially diverse. Descano’s general election opponent, Jonathan Fahey, told a radio show that electing Descano would make Fairfax “go down the road of Philadelphia.” Fahey’s bid drew support from the GOP, from the Democratic prosecutor Descano ousted in the primary, and from police unions. In Arlington, just south of Washington D.C., the defeated prosecutor Theo Stamos told The Appeal in May that racial disparities in local prosecutions were due to “folks coming from other areas in the region.” And in Loudoun, Biberaj faced attacks for “coddling criminals” with her reform proposals. “The theme for this year is overcoming backlash,” said Taylor Pendergrass, a senior campaign strategist for the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice, in a written message to the Political Report.

There were exceptions to this expanding base for decarceral candidates, however. 

In upstate New York, challengers who ran on reform platforms fell short. Monroe County DA Sandra Doorley (the president-elect of the state’s DA association), Onondaga County DA William Fitzpatrick (its former president), and Dutchess County DA William Grady (a longtime foe of reform) won new terms; all are Republicans. This means that many of the New York DAs who have resisted the state’s new pretrial reforms will now be in charge of implementing them.

In Virginia’s Chesterfield County, south of Richmond, the state’s prospective progressive alliance lost a potential member. Democratic incumbent Scott Miles lost to Republican Stacey Davenport, who ran on ending a pretrial diversion program set up by Miles. Miles will have served for only one year. He faced pushback during that time from local law enforcement, a reminder to incoming prosecutors that they will keep facing the same forces they just defeated at the polls.

In Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, Stephen Zappala, a longtime DA with a punitive record, won Tuesday against public defender Lisa Middleman, who wanted to overhaul the local system. Middleman, an independent, did very well within the city of Pittsburgh, but poorly outside of the city limits. Zappala benefited from the same pattern in the Democratic primary.

That said, things shifted even in these jurisdictions. This year alone, Zappala twice faced competitive challenges after not facing a single opponent for 20 years. And Middleman’s success in Pittsburgh signals strength for the local progressive movement since she was running as an independent while Zappala had the nominations of both the Democratic and Republican parties.

Grady, who was seeking a ninth term in Dutchess County, won by just one percentage point. And the DA election remains far too close to call in neighboring Ulster County, where one of the candidates believes the state needs “a more progressive view” than currently exists in the DA association.

For the decarceral movement, though, candidate recruitment remains a major hurdle to growing a geographic base beyond the biggest cities. 

Despite conservatives’ advocacy for reform legislation in red states like Oklahoma, most people who ran for prosecutor on a reform platform this year did so as Democrats. That limits the scale of change in rural counties where GOP candidates are favored. Brad Haywood, chief public defender of Arlington County and executive director of Justice Forward Virginia, a nonpartisan organization, noted that “whether the movement expands beyond big cities” hinges on ideologically varied messaging and candidates. 

Moreover, in each of the states that held multiple elections for prosecutor this year—Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia—the majority of jurisdictions drew only one candidate. In 50 of Virginia’s 70 counties with fewer than 50,000 residents, one name appeared on Tuesday’s ballot: the incumbent prosecutor’s.