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The Case for District Attorneys in the Post-Bernie Left

The American left suffered a major blow when Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders suspended his presidential campaign on April 8th. The question for so many people who had gotten involved in politics due to Bernie’s runs in 2016 and 2020 is simple: Now what?

Much of the American left put their hopes in a Bernie presidency, but the reality is that even if Sanders won the presidency, it was never going to end there. A president can only do so much, especially domestically, without a groundswell of support at every level of government.

Bernie’s exit from presidential politics leaves a massive organizing vacuum. According to Politico, many former Sanders volunteers are finding that “their organizing networks are on the verge of falling apart.” If mismanaged, the newly re-energized American left could see itself fade into obscurity. Part of the issue is that many are thinking about the next cause to dedicate themselves to. Enter district attorneys.

A district attorney’s job is to incarcerate people. At first glance, one might think that district attorneys have absolutely no place in the American left. Many do believe this, as incarceration is often used as a one-size-fits all solution to many issues. District attorneys tend to be at the helm of this, utilizing incarceration as a means to solve unrelated issues or for their own political ambition. I believe that this is actually the specific reason that focusing on electing district attorneys is so vital. A district attorney wields an immense amount of power that can be used for good should they desire to do so.

Electing district attorneys can and should be an integral part of the post-Bernie left in America. Very few elected offices have the kind of direct power over the well-being of their constituents that a district attorney has, and if they are not utilized humanely, they can and absolutely will be utilized in the worst ways imaginable.

Up until very recently, the “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice was the standard way district attorneys and legislators went about things. Draconian sentences for drug possession, three strikes, the death penalty, and other policies. When running for president in 1992, then-Governor Bill Clinton returned to Arkansas to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector in an attempt to shed the Democrats’ image of being “soft on crime.” In 1994, Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, better known as the Crime Bill.

While legislatures around the country are moving at a snail’s pace on criminal justice issues like ending cash bail, drug decriminalization, and rectifying incredibly harmful laws regarding sex work, district attorneys have the power to enact many of these reforms on their own. At the end of the day, the district attorney decides who to prosecute.

While there have certainly been district attorneys who tried to make reforms before, Larry Krasner became one of the earlier openly reform-minded prosecutors in the country after winning the Philadelphia District Attorney’s election in 2017. John McNesby, the president of Philadelphia’s largest police union, called Krasner’s candidacy “hilarious.” In the Democratic primary (which, in a city like Philadelphia, is the de facto election), Krasner finished nearly 20% ahead of second place. He replaced an interim district attorney, but the last elected district attorney before him was Seth Williams. Williams painted himself as a reformer but left the District Attorney’s Office with incarceration rates that dwarfed national numbers, keeping cash bail as commonplace as ever, and still seeking the death penalty. The reason that Williams was not seeking re-election was because he faced bribery and extortion charges from the Department of Justice.

In the second month of his tenure, Krasner announced that he would not be pursuing charges for those possessing marijuana. As mentioned earlier, district attorneys can often make progress on issues where lawmakers lag behind. Despite support from the Pennsylvania governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general, recreational marijuana is still illegal in the state. The speaker of the Pennsylvania House was so opposed to medical marijuana that he was allegedly brought to tears when discussing the subject with his colleagues. I have a sneaking feeling he is not in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana.

Also in his second month, Krasner stopped seeking cash bail for defendants accused of certain misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. In 2018, he compiled a list of police officers who had lied on duty, racially profiled, or committed other offences. District attorneys have the power to do this and so many other things that can improve the lives of their constituents.

Perhaps even more impressive than Krasner’s 2017 victory was the primary victory of Kim Foxx in 2016. She was able to defeat incumbent Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez on a platform that included prioritizing diversion over incarceration, police accountability, and focusing on wrongful convictions. Foxx decisively won re-election in 2020 after halting cash bail for minor crime charges, dropping the county’s incarceration rate, and reducing pretrial detention during her first term. It should be noted a county’s head prosecutor is not always known as a district attorney. They sometimes hold the title of state’s attorney, county attorney, or something similar.

Krasner and Foxx were just the first of a wave of this new progressive prosecutor movement. Other district attorneys in this same mold followed. Wesley Bell in St. Louis, Jim Hingeley in Albemarle County, Virginia, Chesa Boudin in San Francisco, and several others ran and won their races. These district attorneys have halted prosecuting arrests for marijuana possession (in states where it remains illegal), reduced or eliminated cash bail, and have actively pursued anti-carceral measures. These victories are usually in larger urban areas, but Jim Hingeley’s victory shows that the success of reform-minded district attorneys does not have to be limited to cities where victories over Republican opponents are mere technicalities. In fact, Hingeley’s victory was over a Republican incumbent.

In another example of how district attorneys can positively impact the lives of their constituents, Chesa Boudin chose to utilize a program that is optional for counties in California. The program gives parents of minor children a chance to get misdemeanor and nonviolent felony charges dismissed after participating in a diversion program that includes parenting classes. The program was implemented with the goal of avoiding the trauma a child goes through when a parent is imprisoned and helping stop generational incarceration.

A big reason the American left should dedicate energy to electing district attorneys is because a good district attorney can help people in ways that other elected offices cannot. Legislators are limited by their colleagues, often being forced to water down or dramatically change legislation just to give it any chance of passing. While governors and presidents can utilize executive orders for certain reasons, they also face similar limitations. District attorneys, however, do not really face similar problems. A district attorney can decide whether or not to charge somebody with a crime and what kind of a sentence to recommend. This gives them the power to take criminal justice reform into their own hands. For such an impactful office, the district attorney is woefully under-publicized. If the left can change that, it could be a massive step in the right direction on criminal justice.

In previous years, it would likely be inconceivable that a mainstream presidential contender would endorse a candidate for district attorney, and yet it is becoming normalized to an extent. Kim Foxx’s re-election was endorsed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Sanders also endorsed Chesa Boudin in 2019. Not all of the candidates he endorsed won, such as Audia Jones and Tiffany Cabán, who was also endorsed by Warren. Of course, those who were following the Queens District Attorney race know that the results of Cabán’s election were dubious at best. When it comes to progressive change in the district attorney’s office and beyond, the very people and interests that oppose this change often operate the institutions that would hypothetically facilitate it, but that is a topic for another day.

If progressive figures were to make district attorney elections a key part of their strategy, what would that look like? This is a complicated question, but it would be a chance for people to see that policies they may be adverse to (such as decriminilizing drug possession and sex work) can be effective and improve public safety. In the best case scenario, reform-minded district attorneys would change public opinion on these issues, and that would lead to legislators making progress. However, even if it is not this smooth (it won’t be), there are still lives that can be changed for the better under certain district attorneys.

Take, for example, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. One of the most underreported moral catastrophes of this pandemic has been the neglect of people in prisons and jails. It is almost impossible to stop the spread of an infectious disease in a prison. However, it is not impossible to release non-violent offenders, elderly incarcerated people, and people with a minimal amount of time left on their sentence. Chesa Boudin has reduced the San Francisco jail population by nearly 40% in response to the coronavirus pandemic. This is a move that undoubtedly saved lives and was only possible because progressives focused on the 2019 San Francisco District Attorney election. If progressives focus more energy on district attorney races, being able to do this on a larger scale is very possible.

If for no other reason, the American left should be focusing on district attorney races because if they do not, then bad actors will have a vice-like grip on one of the most stealthily powerful offices in the country. Take, for example, Leon Cannizzaro, the district attorney for the Orleans Parish (New Orleans). Cannizzaro has been in office since 2008. In that time, he’s generated controversy for threatening public defenders with arrest, prosecuting juveniles on questionable grounds as adults, and attempting to arrest a domestic violence survivor for not obeying a fake subpoena.

District Attorneys like Cannizzaro are all too common, but this is in part a result of many not taking the office as seriously as they could. I have not seen any polling, but I would assume that the majority of New Orleans residents would not approve of the actions stated above. By focusing district attorney elections, the American left can begin to shine a light on these grave injustices that get little-to-no attention.

Electoral politics has its limits. It can be extremely frustrating, as the American left saw these last few months. However, if the goal is to help as many people as possible, the district attorney’s office is a place that absolutely must be targeted. The direct benefits of a reform-minded district attorney and the direct suffering caused by a regressive district attorney is far more extreme than most, if not all public offices. There is so much more to gain and so much more to lose. It would be a moral failure to neglect the district attorney’s office in pursuit of other electoral endeavors. The left must continue to persevere if they want to build on the success they have already had in this realm.

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