Criminal Justice

Problem Prosecutors Lost Big on Election Night

Reform-minded challengers continued to unseat "tough-on-crime" prosecutors in targeted races across the country.


Loren Elliott/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Tuesday was a bad night for Democrats, but far below the national drama playing out, it was a surprisingly good night for criminal justice advocates working to defeat local prosecutors with troubled track records.

Lifted by social justice groups, grassroots get-out-the-vote efforts, and one particularly deep-pocketed donor, relatively unknown challengers pulled off upset victories against a number of incumbent local prosecutors and elected law enforcement officials in Texas, New Mexico, Florida, Arizona, and Missouri, among other states.

In Harris County, Tx., voters elected a Democrat as district attorney for the first time in 40 years. In Maricopa County, Az., a retired Phoenix police officer ousted the notorious sheriff Joe Arpaio after 23 years in office. In Jefferson County, Al., it appears voters will reject both incumbent Republican D.A.'s and elect Democrats for the first time in 10 years—and elect a black woman to the position for the first time ever.

The results are part of a growing focus on the outsized role local prosecutors play in the justice system. "We believe locally elected prosecutors are the most powerful people in the criminal justice system," says Scott Roberts, campaign director for Color Of Change PAC. The PAC, the political action arm of the civil rights organization, targeted four local prosecutor elections this cycle.

Roberts notes that prosecutors determine, among other things, what if any charges will be brought against a defendant and whether a defendant will receive a plea deal. "In addition to all that, they are among the few folks who have the ability to hold police accountable," he says.

Color of Change contacted about 3.5 million voters in 90 text-a-thons held across the country, according to The Washington Post.

Reform-minded candidates also received crucial fundraising boosts from liberal megadonor George Soros, who funneled more than $3 million to the Maricopa County sheriff's race alone.

The wave of backlash against prosecutors began to pick up steam earlier this year, when challenger Kim Foxx overwhelmingly defeated Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez in the Democratic primary. Challengers running on explicitly reform-minded campaigns also won primaries in St. Louis, Cuyahoga County in Ohio, and Orange and Osceola County in Florida. All of those candidates cruised to victory Tuesday night. In Orange and Osceola County, Democrat Aramis Ayala will become the first black state attorney in Florida history. Less than 1 percent of prosecutors nationwide are women of color, Roberts says.

Whitney Tymas—an advisor to several of the Soros-backed PACs that operated in this cycle, as well as chairman of Maricopa Strong, the PAC that worked to oust Arpaio—says their candidates prevailed in all but three of the 15 races they targeted.

Maricopa County D.A. Bill Montgomery, an ally of Arpaio who is a stanch opponent of marijuana legalization, beat his challenger and will remain in office, but overall, Tymas and Roberts say momentum is on their side.

"More than 90 percent of prosecutors seek reelection and win," Tymas says. "A lot of times there's just no contest around these races. This is a special moment where there's real challenges being waged in these races, and challengers are starting to win."

What's more, the elections could have a profound impact on the death penalty in America. Several of the ousted prosecutors were from the 16 "outlier" counties, identified in a report by the Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project earlier this fall, that produce the majority of the dwindling number of death penalty sentences in the U.S.

Rob Smith, the director of the Fair Punishment Project, says that, although voters supported the death penalty in ballot initiatives in California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, the outcomes of prosecutor elections show a much different public opinion at the local level.

"In real life, in real cases, people have to wrestle with the moral implications, and it's not just a figment of their imagination," says Smith. "It's a real human being. When you get local, you're seeing at granular level that people have thoroughly repudiated the death penalty."

The results of Tuesday's election, Smith says, "means a punishment that's incredibly, exquisitely rare in the U.S. is about to become even more rare."

Harris County, Tx.

In Harris County, which includes Houston, Democratic challenger Kim Ogg knocked out incumbent District Attorney Devon Anderson. "This is Houston, in all of its glory and diversity, and I am so proud to be your DA," Ogg said Tuesday night after clinching victory. "We're going to have a system with fair bail; we're going to have a system that doesn't oppress the poor; we're going to have a system that goes after the rapists and the robbers."

Anderson is perhaps most notorious for holding a rape victim in jail for a month to ensure she testified, but Harris County has numerous other systemic problems with how it administers justice.

A joint report by Human Rights Watch and the ACLU released this fall documented how Harris County aggressively prosecutes the war on drugs, ruining people's lives for miniscule amounts of drugs. According to the report, "data provided to us by Texas shows that 53 percent of drug possession arrests in Harris County (in and around Houston) were for marijuana, compared with 39 percent in nearby Dallas County."

Faulty drug tests have led Harris County to lead in the country in wrongful convictions, with at least 73 exonerations for drug possession since 2010.

Hillsborough County, Fl.

In Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, former federal prosecutor Andrew Warren narrowly defeated Hillsborough County State's Attorney Mark Ober, who has held the position since 2000, by fewer than 5,000 votes.

Hillsborough County is one of 16 "outlier" counties that have produced the majority of new death penalty sentences in the U.S. over the past six years. Under Ober's leadership, the county produced more death penalties than any other county in the state. According to the Fair Punishment Project, at least half of those death penalty cases had significant mitigating factors, such as mental impairment or illness.

In 2012, the Florida Supreme Court vacated one death penalty sentence obtained by Ober's office because the defendant's "extreme mental illness, coupled with the circumstances of the crime, made a death sentence disproportionate as compared with other murder cases."

Jefferson County, Al.

In the two district attorney races in Jefferson County, which includes Birmingham, voters appear poised to give both incumbents the boot.

Charles Henderson defeated incumbent Republican District Attorney Brandon Falls, making him the first Democrat to hold the position in more than a decade.

The other district attorney race has yet to be called yet, but challenger Lynneice Washington, who would be the first African American and first woman to be elected to the position in the county's history, narrowly leads incumbent Republican D.A. Bill Veitch.

The Fair Punishment Project found that Jefferson County has produced more death penalty sentences than any other county in Alabama. In one of those cases, a Jefferson County prosecutor claimed a man with an IQ of 56 was faking mental retardation. In another, prosecutors secured a death penalty sentence by presenting illegal evidence to the jury.

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  1. Voters holding law enforcement accountable? Is this going to be a trend?


    What do I win???

    1. me telling people the sun will still come up after election day, and their lives will not drastically change either way…

      OMYGERD You can only say that because you are not a POC or a Woman, do you know how UNSAFE people are feeling right now?

      I know I will lose a lot of FB friends, but I really want to tell everyone to grow the fuck up and act like adults. You lost an election and you are worse than a fucking toddler having a temper tantrum.

      1. This person was one of my law school classmates. She said I sounded like an uneducated idiot when I said, “These people whining about not getting their woman president were whining when Sarah Palin was denied the Vice Presidency and when Carly Fiorina didn’t survive the primaries, right?”

        She also followed up with the “you’re white male priviilege” prevents me from understanding why people are scared.

        I told her that hateful identity politics like what she just engaged in were partly why Trump won.

        She almost immediately deleted the offending post.

        1. any supposedly educated person (and definitely a lawyer) who brings up “privilege” as an argument should lose their degree as a matter of course

        2. I’m using that line, thanks.

          The problem is these people arn’t stupid, but they really know nothing and think they are smart. I’ve seen it so often with progs, it’s like they have some sort of inferiority complex.

          They spout off a bunch of talking points they heard on the daily show or xov or whatever, yet when challenged with the most basic question are unable to respond with anything coherent. Identity Politics is all they have because it makes everything simple and clear cut for them.

          1. What’s been congealing in my mind is that you can’t learn what you already know. And man, some people know it all. I’m guilty of it myself, but that’s really what this attitude is. “Shut up. Nothing you can tell me will change what I know, so why are you still talking.”

        3. I see she conflates education with wisdom. Or, intelligence, even.

          Seems like you win a modicum of sanity back into your life. Unless she’s still going to still write to you.

          1. you’d be surprised how many people think that, usually people who must feel inferior or something. I have a Finance BS(C) from Santa Clara, but some of the dumbest people I have ever met have college degrees or top certifications.

            Just because you didn’t spend 10 / 50 / 200k on a degree doesn’t mean you arn’t educated. And just because you have an art degree or studies degree doesn’t mean you are.

            1. Well, I continue to be surprised by it, as people from all over the spectrum seem to think this way. It’s as if the acquiring of knowledge automatically imbues the ability to parse it correctly. And, that knowledge can only be gathered from certain sources.

              Just one of the many reasons why things get so screwed up, or, are just shit in the first place.

              1. It also assumes that knowledge is final and never fleeting. I have a bachelor’s degree in international relations and used to consume The Economist on a near-daily basis. Since around the time I entered law school, I’ve focused almost exclusively on what happens in the U.S. (particularly with the law). I almost feel like I no longer deserve my bachelors – it took me a few seconds to remember Aleppo!

          2. My goal is for people to abandon collectivism (of which identity politics is a part) and embrace people as individuals. Pointing out the hypocrisy and the social discord that collectivism engenders is the strongest ammunition we have right now, I believe.

            1. This. I am interested in your ideas, and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

              1. Alright, but can you stomach all the Sugar Free fiction and Warty tentacle porn?

      2. When I made a similar comment to the effect that life would go on,, a proggie commented that while she appreciated my perspective, she needed me no to belittle her sadness.

        Then she unfriended me.

        BTW, it’s been 30 hours since my boss has managed a non-essential conversation with me. I’m kind of curious when he’s going to forgive me for the crime of not thinking people who voted for Trump are all horrible, in-bred, poorly educated, morons from fly-over country.

        1. “How dare you interrupt my signaling?”

        2. True to the left, they treat “unfriend” like it’s a weapon or something.

          You mean I posted something batshit insane and some jerk called me out on it? UNFRIEND

          Seeing a counter-point, BLOCK!

          Shown statistics that disprove my narrative, MANSPLAINING / WHITESPLAINING!

      3. do you know how UNSAFE people are feeling right now?

        I’m going to make a completely unresearched guess on this and say about 80% of the unsafe-ness people feel is because Hillary & the Dems have been telling them for 6 months that they will be unsafe under Trump and about 20% because of anything Trump actually said.

        1. They feel unsafe because they want to feel unsafe. They want to identify as victims because it confers the moral high ground in their screwed up system of logic.

          In their minds, it makes their argument unassailable, and who doesn’t want that, particularly on the internet where you’re subject to having your most idiotic ramblings reviewed by everyone?

        2. That’s almost exactly what I told my Facebook friend: “I’m sorry Democratic leaders and the left in general have stoked so much fear mongering.

    2. I generally refuse to engage with anyone or anything on Derpbook lest I be tempted to tear some new assholes into old college friends.

      Let them blow it off. You can ask them about it in person in a public setting where they’ll (maybe) be ashamed about it later.

      1. I haven’t looked at since Monday and probably won’t until February. I may post happy thoughts without reading anyone’s posts.

    3. I got mine back in 2014 for coming out as a libertarian to some folks. Welcome to the club!

      1. Please note, the progs in question were Persons of No Color, so i’m not sure how they got to decide that.

        1. That’s a new one. Please elaborate on PONCs, I’m curious.

          1. I don’t undestand. White is not a color, neither is black. So where do they get this from?

            Is Trump a POC because he is Orange?

          2. I mean they were some pasty-ass cracker motherfuckers, Lee.

            Not that i’m a shade darker than fishbelly white myself.

            1. ahhhh, the Irish

    4. You win one less dumbass you have to interact with.

    5. You win the chance to jettison Facebook, and detach from the countless fake friends therein.

  3. real progress

  4. Anything to counterweight the US Attorneys that we might get under Fat Bastard.

    1. My prog friend didn’t have a response to this

      – He made a fat joke about Chris Christie
      – Me: So it’s okay to body-shame someone as long as it’s someone you don’t like?

      You know, sorta how they are racist against white people (even though may are white), but have their own fake definition of the word racism to avoid thinking they are racist.

      1. Thankfully, I don’t have that issue. I hate everyone equally.

        1. ^ This. I’m equal opportunity all the way.

  5. Ogg may end up being better than Anderson, it looks like she will at least defacto decriminalize marijuana, but I wouldn’t say she won on some reform wave. The whole Harris county has a Dem wave that swept county wide offices, not just DA.

    1. Ogg no like fire. Ogg afraid.

      1. +1 unfrozen cavewoman lawyer

  6. ‘Reform-minded candidates also received crucial fundraising boosts from liberal megadonor George Soros, who funneled more than $3 million to the Maricopa County sheriff’s race alone.’
    Every silver lining has a cloud.

    1. $3M for sheriff’s race? shit.

      1. Arpaio being kicked to the curb and Soros pissing away that much money is kind of a win win.

        1. I like the way you think!

  7. completely OT

    Africa has the most beautiful trophy antelopes on the planet. I get the whole majestic beast lion hunt bullshit but I’d prefer the elegance of an eland, kudu, or nyala. Especially at only 2800 apiece. Hell, impala’s are practically free.

    1. Yes, but you need to go aftermarket on parts for the damn things!!

    2. And they’re delicious!

      1. And the impalas have great milage!

      2. Yes, they make some good jerky.

  8. Reform-minded challengers continued to unseat “tough-on-crime” prosecutors in targeted races across the country.

    The problem here is that they were removed by *targeted* campaigns. Lot’s of outside support funneled to the reform candidate. But these guys were elected by the locals, *re-elected* by the locals, and when Chris Adams leaves Calvera returns.

    Plus there’s all the other villages that elected their own Calvera and keep re-electing him. The fact is morons love their ‘tough-on-crime’ like anyone loves hating on the out-group – it not until that eye turns to them that they start to think that maybe its not such a good idea.

    1. I think many voters simply make the mistake of believing their old civics textbooks, and think that the criminal justice system weeds out the innocent from the guilty.

      Also, they may know people with addictions, or they see violent criminals who use drugs, and conclude that the government has to Protect the Community against such threats.

      1. And all that’s going ot happen in the the end is at the next election they’ll elect a dude just as bad as the one they just kicked out.

    2. Also, I don’t see evidence that some of these, especially in neighboring Hillsborogh County, FL, are really different. As best I can tell, the new guy’s stance is that the old guy was lazy.

  9. This is very positive along with pot legalization. However it is counterbalanced by Trump, who promises to ramp up the war on drugs.

    1. If the left can make secession cool again, maybe we won’t have to worry about the federal government anymore.

  10. I am really sorry to say that Montana passed its version of Marsy’s Law, effectively denying defendants’ Confrontation Clause rights.

    See here.

    1. Its a disaster.

      1. Yeah, and like the gun control initiative in Washington, this one passed with nearly 2/3rds support.

        People feel, not think.

  11. Anyone notice that the author equates replacing Republicans with Democrats as a default improvement? I thought Reason was a libertarian rag? They are scraping the bottom of the barrel with some of their writers.

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