A broad progressive coalition is spending millions of dollars to oust hard-line prosecutors around the country and replace them with criminal justice reform advocates.
The allies are hoping to replicate what is already happening in Philadelphia, where new District Attorney Larry Krasner (D) is reshaping the city’s criminal justice system with the goal of ending mass incarceration. Billionaire George Soros, who backed Krasner’s election in 2017 with a $1.45 million donation, is investing in other district attorney races across the nation this cycle. The American Civil Liberties Union, which received grant funding from Soros’ Open Society Foundations in 2014 to support criminal justice reform, is planning voter education and outreach programs in as many as 10 states. And political action committees like Real Justice and Color of Change are directly intervening in key races.
Soros, the ACLU, the two PACs and a constellation of allied state-level groups hope that by organizing activists, educating voters and dumping money into district attorney races across the country, they can slowly start to replace more of the country’s 2,400 top prosecutors with reformers like Krasner. They also aim to change the way the public views elections for district attorneys, who are some of the most powerful people in the criminal justice system. The groups have targeted races in about a dozen counties that collectively contain around 5 percent of the U.S. population.
Real Justice endorsed Krasner in the Philadelphia DA election last year. The group works to elect reform-minded prosecutors around the nation and is hoping to be deeply involved in about 15 races in 2018, activist and writer Shaun King, the group’s co-founder, told HuffPost last week.
This year, Real Justice has raised about $1 million in funding, according to the Federal Election Commission; King said he expects the group to use every dollar and staff member it has in those 15 races. Real Justice has already announced endorsements for six district attorney candidates — four in California and two in Texas. The political action committee arm of Color of Change, the longtime civil rights advocacy group, has raised about $2 million, according to the FEC, and has announced endorsements for three district attorney candidates.
One of the reformers’ favored candidates has already lost. Both Real Justice and Color of Change backed Judge Elizabeth Frizell, who was running for district attorney in Dallas County, Texas. She came in second in the county’s Democratic primary in March, and has since filed a lawsuit alleging that voter fraud cost her the win.
But Tuesday night, two black, reform-minded candidates in North Carolina ― former criminal defense attorney Satana Deberry in Durham County and former Assistant District Attorney Faris Dixon in Pitt County, both of whom are backed by Color of Change ― won their Democratic primary elections.
“We’re starting to send a message. We’re starting to get phone calls from DAs around the country asking us about our demands. We’re getting calls from candidates,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change’s nonprofit civil rights organization and spokesman for the group’s political action committee arm. “And as an organization that couldn’t get DAs to return our calls, this is the power of actually being engaged in the democracy this way.”
The political action committee expects to be involved in five to seven more races in various states this election cycle, Robinson said.
“There’s a lot more to come,” Robinson said. “Part of our work is building the kind of long-term cultural power and conversation around this office so that DAs know that, all over the country, people are watching, and that communities have the power to turn out and kick them out if they aren’t serving them. It’s also an opportunity for DAs who do want to do the right thing, want to be reform-minded, to actually be on the right side of history.”
Real Justice selects candidates to support based on a questionnaire. The first question uses a five-page guidance memo Krasner distributed to his office in February as a litmus test. It asks the candidates to list the policies from that memo they would not implement during their first 100 days in office. The dozens of other questions ask for the candidates’ stances on mass incarceration, the drug war, the death penalty, police accountability and corruption. Color of Change has six national demands it expects district attorneys to support — end money bail, stop putting children in adult jails and prisons, stop unnecessary prosecutions of low-level offenses, stop anti-immigrant prosecutions, hold police accountable and practice transparency about their offices.
But the groups have ambitions far beyond simply endorsing candidates. They want to educate and change minds. Color of Change is doing voter outreach in local communities, telling people about the role a district attorney plays and the records and campaign platforms of various candidates ― all in an effort to get black voters to turn out in DA elections. Real Justice, meanwhile, is in the process of building out regional volunteer teams in all 2,400 districts that elect their top prosecutors. Building that new system out will take a big chunk of this year, King said.
“Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is have a massive educational effort so people know that the DA is really, really important,” King said. “The role of prosecutors is really important. We have to say it over and over again.”
King sees reform of local prosecutor offices as integral to the broader criminal justice reform movement.
“We often think of bad cops, horrible incidents of police brutality, but at the heart of all of it is 2,400 district attorneys,” King said. “Most local people can’t describe their DA or its functions. It’s a system that operates in the shadows. And they have sweeping powers to run the local justice system.”
King is right: Prosecutors are among the most powerful government agents in the American criminal justice system. They have complete and unrivaled access to the evidence that can determine a person’s guilt or innocence. They have broad powers over how seriously to take a charge against an individual and how aggressively they are willing to pursue a case. They can cut deals with witnesses, co-conspirators and defendants, and they can pile on charges to produce sentences to strong-arm someone into taking a plea deal. Prosecutors determine the charges a defendant will ultimately face and set the parameters for the eventual punishment a person might receive.
America’s elected prosecutors do not reflect the diversity of the jurisdictions they serve. Ninety-five percent of elected prosecutors are white, and 79 percent are male. Only 1 percent of prosecutors are women of color. And the majority of prosecutors — 85 percent — run for election unopposed.
Prosecutors are also rarely punished for misconduct. The cases that have led to disbarment, or even criminal charges, are few and far between. And in the end, they are largely shielded from any liability that might result from their actions thanks to a Supreme Court ruling granting them absolute immunity from civil suits.
Progressives’ efforts in 2018 prosecutorial elections could represent a turning point, said Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor and executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a group that works with more than a dozen recently elected reform-minded prosecutors to help them accomplish the goals they campaigned on.
“We’re watching this election season closely because we know that this group of new elected DAs with a different vision for the justice system is likely to expand in number,” Krinsky said.
“We know in the past that most DAs are not just re-elected, they often have no opposition at all ― so there’s not even an airing of critical issues for the public,” she added. “That’s changing. Given the enormously influential role of prosecutors in controlling the front door to the justice system, this degree of scrutiny is helpful, healthy and necessary.”
HuffPost is committed to covering the role of elected prosecutors in America’s criminal justice system. To reach Matt Ferner with tips or story ideas, email firstname.lastname@example.org.