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Nation & World

Election Results Show Voters Nationwide Ready For Criminal Justice Reform

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

After a summer marked by widespread unrest over police violence and racial injustice, voters showed their support for criminal justice reforms. And that support at the polls proved that a growing movement to elect reform-minded district attorneys has staying power. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: One of the country's largest prosecutor's offices is the Cook County State's Attorney's Office in Chicago. Kim Foxx, the first Black woman to lead it, is considered one of the country's most prominent progressive prosecutors. First elected four years ago, she promised to address disparities in the criminal justice system. Despite some political stumbles, her reelection is an example of the movement's progression.

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KIM FOXX: It means, in this next term, doubling down on our efforts to make sure that people with substance use disorder or mental health issues have the resources they need in communities so we can stop the de facto use of our justice system.

CORLEY: Foxx reduced charges for low-level offenses like retail theft. She steered some facing drug charges into treatment programs. She vacated the sentences of at least 100 men wrongfully convicted and survived a firestorm of controversy over how her office handled the case of a television celebrity.

JOSE GARZA: My name is Jose Garza, and I am the district attorney-elect in Travis County, Texas.

CORLEY: Austin, the capital of Texas, is the county seat. District Attorney-elect Garza, a former public defender, says the typical hallmark of a prosecutor, conviction rates and longer sentences, is wrongheaded. He says prosecuting low-level drug crimes and some nonviolent offenses doesn't make communities safer and that won't be his priority.

GARZA: We also know that those kinds of offenses are one of the greatest drivers of racial disparities in our criminal justice system. And so we have made clear that when we take office, we are going to end the prosecution of low-level drug offenses.

CORLEY: In what's considered a big win for the progressive movement, voters in California's Los Angeles County elected George Gascon as the new district attorney to head the country's largest prosecutor's office. Gascon, who is the former district attorney for San Francisco and a former police chief, says he's ready to move forward on a number of plans.

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GEORGE GASCON: Would eliminate the death penalty, would stop prosecuting children as adults. We would start creating more diversion opportunities for those - especially those that are mentally ill.

CORLEY: The push to elect reform-minded district attorneys began six years ago in the aftermath of nationwide protests spurred by a fatal police shooting in Ferguson, Mo. The movement is growing but still small. Out of more than 2,400 elected prosecutors, fewer than 100 pursue reform agendas. Scott Roberts, the head of campaigns for the activist group Color of Change, says there's been lots of pushback.

SCOTT ROBERTS: From law enforcement and from police unions, from conservative politicians - we think we caught a lot of those folks off guard. They weren't ready for a movement that would focus on prosecutor elections.

CORLEY: But it has caught their attention now. During a speech at the national convention of the Fraternal Order of Police last year, U.S. Attorney General William Barr called the prosecutors, anti-law enforcement district attorneys.

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WILLIAM BARR: That style themselves social justice reformers and spend their time undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook and refusing to enforce the laws...

CORLEY: John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor Peter Moskos says, despite the criticism from the attorney general, those prosecutors are raising real issues. But Moskos says their focus has to be on public safety.

PETER MOSKOS: The idea that if we just stop arresting and prosecuting nonviolent offenders, then everything will get better is just - it's a dream world. We haven't seen that happen anywhere.

CORLEY: Prosecutors Foxx, Gascon and Garza say they are providing a necessary and more nuanced approach and not compromising public safety.

Jami Hodge at the Vera Institute of Justice says the election of more progressive attorneys speaks volumes about where the movement is heading.

JAMI HODGE: And how communities and advocates and organizers are recognizing by changing one person - one person at the top - they can really see something different in the way their system is working in their local community...

CORLEY: A criminal justice reform that she and other advocates hope will gain even more momentum during the next election for prosecutors across the country.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.