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November 8, 2020; Law360

The trend toward electing progressive-minded prosecutors—most often called district attorneys—made enormous advances on Election Day, with the wave hitting a number of major cities, including Los Angeles, Orlando, Detroit, and Columbus, along with Austin, Texas and Aurora, Colorado. These officials not only bring a whole range of powers and discretion with them to the office, but they also often set the tone for conversations about policing, crime, and prisons. One of the central expectations of the electorate is that these new district attorneys will help end mass incarceration and racial disparities in arrests and sentencing.

As NPQ has discussed before, this wave is loosening the stranglehold that public “law and order” discourse has had on criminal justice. The trend also provides one more insight into the outcome of the presidential race: Donald Trump has played the “tough on crime” card to an absurd degree. We can only hope that the trend becomes a bellwether for president-elect Joe Biden, who has at times been far from an avid advocate of criminal justice reform. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, of course, is a former district attorney (as well as state attorney general) herself, although she too has a mixed record in this area.

The trend to elect progressive prosecutors is significant enough that it’s developing its own infrastructure. Cara Bayles writes that this movement to rewrite the standard orientation of district attorneys is reflected in the general public—both Democrats and Republicans, although most of the newly elected progressive prosecutors are Democrats. She writes,

On the whole, opinions are shifting. Back in 2015, a poll conducted by the Associated Press found that 67 percent of Americans supported criminal justice reform. A new poll this summer found that 95 percent now support reform, with 29 percent supporting “a complete overhaul,” and 40 percent supporting “major changes.”

Cristine Soto DeBerry, founder of the Prosecutors Alliance, expresses confidence that the direction in which sentiment about criminal justice is headed is strong. “Candidates regardless of party designation are going to start thinking differently about their approach to criminal justice,” DeBerry says. “And if they don’t, they’re going to have a hard time getting elected. I expect that this is going to continue to grow, that we’ll see ebbs and flows, but I don’t think we are going to retreat from the need to reform our system.”—Ruth McCambridge