At long last, America's racist, crazy tough-on-crime prosecutors are losing elections

Historically, being an elected prosecutor was a sweet gig: operating with "unchecked power and no transparency," you generally got to run unopposed for re-election, and on the rare instances in which someone did dare to run against the incumbent, the incumbent usually won.

Prosecutors are the reason that so many Americans were put behind bars on the basis of flimsy forensic evidence based on pseudoscience. Prosecutors are the ones who make the call not to prosecute cops who gun down unarmed black people. Prosecutors made the call to charge Aaron Swartz with 13 felonies for violating the terms of service on MIT's network, asking for 35 years in prison and hounding him to his death.

But prosecutor-turned-Stanford-law-prof Alan Sklansky has just released a pre-publication law review article that analyzes 8 recent elections in which "hard-line" prosecutors lost their jobs, precisely because they were such tough-on-crime assholes. He calls it a "small but growing trend." As such, it's particularly interesting when posed against Trump's evidence-free assertions of skyrocketing inner-city crime.

For example, 26-year veteran Mississippi prosecutor Forrest Allgood (a perfervid defender of an infamous medical examiner and discredited bite-mark evidence) was ousted last fall by Scott Colom, a young attorney who ran a campaign centered on reforming the system. Voters have also unseated Tim McGinty, the Ohio prosecutor whose jurisdiction includes Cleveland. McGinty was elected as a reformer in 2012, Sklansky notes, and his undoing seems almost entirely attributable to his failure to indict the police officer who killed Tamir Rice in a city park in November 2014.

Holding police accountable was also a factor in prosecutor races in New Mexico and Baltimore, where Marilyn Mosby ran on a more traditional tough-on-crime platform, but also criticized the incumbent for being too closely aligned with the police department and for failing to indict officers after their fatal encounter with Tyrone West. Mosby has since been criticized for her handling of the prosecution of officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray.

Several races have focused more closely on prosecutorial misconduct, or on failings in the death penalty system, and some have been fueled by out-of-state campaign donations, notably by the billionaire George Soros. In other words, behind each victory there is a unique and myriad assortment of issues at play.

Still, notes Sklansky, the recent upsets are not geographically pigeonholed or confined to larger jurisdictions. And although they represent a fraction of the 2,500 prosecutor offices across the country, the fact that incumbent prosecutors generally enjoy such great job security suggests they are significant. “This is a small trend, but it is a trend. Maybe a dozen or so over the last few years, and it is steadily growing,” Sklansky said. “I think that suggests that there is a possibility [for reform] that 15 years ago didn’t seem to exist.”

The Changing Political Landscape for Elected Prosecutors [David Alan Sklansky/Stanford]


Notable Replies

  1. Times change, but slowly. We're only just now coming to a consensus that racism is not okay, but there are plenty of hangers-on. A few blocks from me somebody proudly flies the Confederate battle flag, here in my northern state.

    Actually building a consensus that black lives matter is going to take a long time, and the pushback is incredible. But it's good to see, at least occasionally, it matters at the ballot box.

  2. It's only recently that I've come to realize that "tough on crime" means "will lock up the darkies"


  3. On a related note about the power of prosecutors, Reveal (from the Center for Investigative Reporting) recently had an amazing hour of podcasting from an abuse survivor who tracked down her abuser, reported him, and then followed her story through the court system, including running in to the brick wall that was the county prosecutor.

  4. The American tendency to make professional civil service jobs electable will always be a headscratcher to me. I see that it's a remnant of the pioneer days but surely someone should have seen the poor logic in making positions that should be neutral and non biased (like school administrators, law enforcement and judges) dependent on appeasing fickle voters?

  5. Legion says:

    That's really good news. Next, can we work on getting rid of 800 year old judges who don't think rape is a real crime?

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