But since so much of our justice system is run at the local level, much of the necessary change also needs to come from local government. Fortunately, in recent years, municipal leaders in the criminal justice system — particularly district attorneys — have led a growing reform movement. Their successes show that progressives who want to keep converting grass-roots protest energy into policy changes should focus on the local level.
Organizers and activists in Philadelphia understood these stakes when they helped elect District Attorney Larry Krasner in 2017. A former public defender and the subject of a forthcoming PBS documentary, Krasner has focused on ending mass incarceration by encouraging prosecutors to seek shorter sentences and by moving defendants away from prisons and toward diversion programs like mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment. He has also effectively decriminalized marijuana possession and eliminated cash bail for some misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.
Elsewhere, José Garza, recently elected as district attorney of Travis County, Tex., is already implementing campaign pledges such as expanding the use of diversion programs and limiting cash bail for many low-level defendants. He has also promised to end the prosecution of minor drug offenses and strengthen the justice system’s support for immigrant communities.
It’s not just DAs in big cities — like Krasner, Garza or San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin — who are leading the charge. Stephanie Morales, the commonwealth’s attorney of Portsmouth, Va., is the first Black woman — and first woman of any color — to hold her position. Since taking office, she has secured a conviction against a former Portsmouth police officer for killing an unarmed, 18-year-old Black man named William Chapman. She has worked to restore the voting rights of formerly incarcerated individuals. And she has called on the Virginia General Assembly to end mandatory sentencing minimums, cash bailand the death penalty.
Organizations like the Law Enforcement Action Partnership — a group of officials that includes judges, correctional agents and police officers — are helping drive this movement as well. LEAP has endorsed policies like curtailing the issuance of no-knock warrants, raising the threshold for the use of deadly force, and expanding investments in social workers as first responders in situations involving people experiencing homelessness or mental health challenges.
Not surprisingly, as reformers’ energy and effectiveness have grown, so, too, does their opposition. Many police unions represent staunch, deep-pocketed opponents of reform. For example, Krasner’s critics are exploiting the tragic murder of a Philadelphia man to smear Krasner in the midst of his reelection campaign. Last month, the president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police appeared on Fox News to call for Krasner’s ouster. The network also ran a series of anti-Krasner segments reminiscent of the notorious, racist “Willie Horton” ad from the 1988 presidential campaign.
Some prosecutors also remain part of the problem. Take Los Angeles, where George Gascón defeated incumbent Jackie Lacey in last year’s race for district attorney. Progressives denounced Lacey for failing to prosecute police officers accused of misconduct, and Gascón earned the endorsements of figures like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). But the union that represents the prosecutors within Gascón’s own office is suing him to block the criminal justice reforms he championed as a candidate.
The good news is that grass-roots advocates are banding together to challenge such campaigns. In 2020, the Accountable Justice Action Fund supported the elections and reelections of 10 reform-minded prosecutors who collectively serve more than 38 million people, the AJAF told me. And a group called Fair and Just Prosecution is convening newly elected, progressive prosecutors to share strategies and to connect these prosecutors with national and local organizations who share their vision for change.
But the work is only beginning. This year, roughly 150 communities in the United States will hold elections for local prosecutors and sheriffs. And the AJAF told me that in 2022 more than 1,000 district attorneys are scheduled to be on the ballot.
New York Times Magazine writer Emily Bazelon has outlined what will be on the line: “These are local elections. Not all that many people vote. You can make a big impact on your local criminal justice system without having to address gridlock in Washington.” By supporting reformist candidates and turning out in large numbers, progressives can strike blow after blow to reform our criminal justice system and eliminate systemic racism.