The three Democrats vying to replace Prince George’s State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks have never worked as prosecutors and spend more time on the campaign trail talking about rehabilitation and diversion than they do punishment — which experts say represents a small but growing trend nationwide.
The candidates in the June 26 primary in Prince George’s are a defense attorney, a civil rights attorney and a lawyer who works to divert youth from the criminal-justice system.
Two have served in the Maryland General Assembly, which in recent years has advanced bills to increase police transparency, eliminate some mandatory minimums, steer drug offenders to rehabilitation programs and decrease barriers for ex-offenders trying to get jobs.
Such efforts have taken hold across the country, as states have started to move away from the tough-on-crime approach of the 1990s and early 2000s. But they still are not the mainstream in most state’s attorneys’ offices, which oversee criminal prosecutions and coordinate crime-fighting strategies with police and other law enforcement agencies.
“It’s a different perspective,” said state Sen. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George’s), who is running to become the county’s chief prosecutor after 17 years of helping the accused as a criminal-defense attorney. “People make mistakes. But do you punish people for the rest of their lives?”
In Philadelphia, longtime defense attorney Larry Krasner was elected district attorney last year and has brought reform-minded changes to the office, including telling his prosecutors to begin negotiations for plea bargains at the low end of the punishment spectrum.
In Nueces County, Tex., a lawyer who made a career of defending suspected criminals and had “Not Guilty” tattooed across his chest became the top prosecutor in 2016. And in California, billionaire George Soros financially backed several progressive candidates who promised to decrease the use of cash bail and improve police-community relations. Those candidates were largely unsuccessful in their bids to unseat incumbent prosecutors in the primary last week.
“The sample size is small, but it’s a growing trend,” said Fordham University law professor John Pfaff. “There’s a growing resistance to mass punishment . . . and people are becoming aware that who the prosecutor is matters tremendously.”
Prince George’s, one of the wealthiest majority-black jurisdictions in the country, has seen a 50 percent drop in crime since 2010. The number of homicides remains relatively high, however, second in the state behind Baltimore City.
Residents tend to believe in forgiveness and second chances; many have embraced County Council candidate Calvin Hawkins, a longtime county government employee who as a young man used crack cocaine, committed armed robberies and served nearly six years in prison.
Former state’s attorney Glenn Ivey, who is backing Ramirez in the prosecutor’s race, said voters in the county have supported progressive approaches to reducing crime for years. When he held the office, he created mentoring programs and worked with local organizations to develop anti-gang initiatives.
“We’re a big enough and progressive enough jurisdiction that we’re able to take the lead on these kinds of criminal-justice reforms,” said Ivey.
Ramirez, who was one of the first Latino delegates elected to the General Assembly, wants to decrease arrests for low-level crimes, including petty theft and marijuana possession, and create more diversion programs.
He is backed by Progressive Maryland and Service Employees International Union 32BJ, which represents 18,000 workers in the metro region.
Former state delegate Aisha N. Braveboy — who leads the race in terms of endorsements, including from all the county’s major public safety unions — talks about her 15 years advising the Community Public Awareness Council, which delivers community-based sanctions that help keep youths out of the criminal-justice system.
“She doesn’t just want to lock people up, and we like that,” said Thomas Boone, a Prince George’s officer and president of the United Black Police Officers Association.
Braveboy, who ran for state attorney general in 2014 but lost in the Democratic primary, also says she wants to create more diversion programs for low-level offenders. She vows to continue the office’s focus on prosecuting and preventing domestic violence in the county.
“The things that are national trends now, I’ve been working on for 15 years,” said Braveboy, who is on leave from her position as manager of government affairs at Children’s National Health System.
The third candidate, D. Michael Lyles, is a former Bowie City Council member who heads the county’s Human Relations Commission. He said he wants to use his experience as a civil rights attorney to “innovate how the office prosecutes cases and address inequities in the criminal justice system.”
Lyles, who chairs a county human- and sex-trafficking task force, said he would focus on prosecuting perpetrators of human trafficking. He has raised a fraction of what Braveboy and Ramirez have brought in, according to campaign finance reports.
Alsobrooks, the current state’s attorney, is running for county executive. During her two terms as the county’s lead prosecutor, she has emphasized the importance of balancing punishment and rehabilitation, introducing a program that allows first-time low-level drug offenders to attend Prince George’s Community College and complete community service instead of serving time.
Those vying to succeed her say they would like to have seen more interaction with the community and better pay for attorneys in the office.
Alsobrooks has not endorsed a candidate in the state’s attorney race.
Alexander Williams Jr., who did not have experience as a prosecutor when he was elected the county’s first African American state’s attorney in 1986, said residents are “sensitive to the need for reforms” and want to elect a state’s attorney who can continue to improve relations between the community and police.
“We’ve made improvements over the years. but it remains a real problem in America,” said Williams.
He is backing Braveboy but said all three candidates are “very good” people with different experiences.