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Progressive Prosecutors Win Key Races Despite GOP Attacks on Criminal Justice Reform

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We look at the wave of progressive prosecutors elected in Tuesday’s midterms and what the results mean for the movement to reform the criminal justice system. Voters have an “understanding that we can’t incarcerate our way to safety,” says law professor Lara Bazelon, who explains how progressive prosecutors won several key races in blue, purple and red states despite Republican candidates across the country campaigning with a focus on crime and public safety. “The progressive narrative, far from being dead, is very much alive.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

As we continue our coverage of the midterm races, we turn now to look at what the results mean for the movement to reform the criminal justice system. Progressive prosecutors won several key races, including in counties in Texas, Iowa and Minnesota, despite Republican candidates across the country campaigning with a focus on crime and public safety.

We go now to San Francisco, where we’re joined by Lara Bazelon. She is a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, the author of the book Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction. She’s also the former [sic] head of the Innocence Commission inside the San Francisco DA’s Office, which was set up by Chesa Boudin, who was recalled in a controversial vote in June.

Professor Bazelon, great to have you with us again. Why don’t you start off by talking about these victories, and losses, across the country? Not a lot of the corporate media is paying attention to that right now.

LARA BAZELON: They’re not. And it’s surprising, because there was this prediction that progressive prosecutors were going to lose and that the progressive prosecutor movement itself was in deep trouble, and that is not at all the story coming out of this election. In fact, quite surprisingly, progressive candidates won across the board, and they won in purple and blue but also red states. There were some resounding victories in unexpected places like Oklahoma City, Polk County, Iowa, and a number of counties in Texas.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you talk about this controversial recall of Chesa Boudin?

LARA BAZELON: Yes. So, I think that Chesa Boudin’s recall was seen as kind of a harbinger for what was in store for other progressive prosecutors. In fact, I think the real story is that it was an outlier, and I’ll tell you why. I think the population of San Francisco is very unique. And while we’re thought of and mocked as this extremely liberal, over-the-top city, it’s in fact, in many ways, a very traditional liberal bastion with some very well-entrenched, pretty centrist moderate roots, and it has a very, very small minority population.

What we’re seeing in a lot of these jurisdictions, from Marion County, Indiana, to Hays County, Texas, to places like Philadelphia and Chicago, is that in cities with large minority populations — and we’re talking about the populations that are most directly impacted by crime — the people who live there, they want a different solution. They want a progressive prosecutor. And we know that, not only because they are continuing to elect new progressive prosecutors, but also — and this is another story of this election — they are reelecting the people they put in office four years ago.

And, you know, it’s interesting, with respect to Chesa Boudin, you had introduced me as the former head of the Innocence Commission. In fact, I’m still the head of the Innocence Commission. And I think that’s because, even though we have a new DA, this was a progressive idea that a more moderate centrist DA is continuing to embrace, and she has, in fact, kept our commission intact. So there are certain progressive ideas that, even though voters maybe rejected the overall person in Chesa Boudin, they very much wanted to keep certain kinds of reforms, including the reform that I’m lucky enough to head up.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, we’ve seen a lot of Brooke Jenkins right now, the San Francisco DA, because of the hammer attack, this horrid attack on the House speaker’s husband, Paul Pelosi, Brooke Jenkins bringing the charges against the perpetrator. Yet we now know, based on exposés in the San Francisco papers, she was paid to lead the campaign to unseat Chesa Boudin. How has that changed the office in other ways, in terms of the kind of criminal justice reform that Chesa was pushing forward?

LARA BAZELON: Well, it’s definitely true that the office has moved very much rightward since Brooke Jenkins took over as interim head. Of course, she was appointed by our mayor. And now, I think yesterday, she declared victory over her more progressive challenger.

And you’re right that there have been a number of questions swirling around the administration. There was the question whether she was actually being paid at the time that she said she was a volunteer for the recall. There is a question of some emails that she sent from her official account about a case that was a very high-profile case when Chesa was first under attack, sending them in a way that was not authorized by the policy of the office or by law. So there are continuing to be these questions, and I think it will be really interesting to see what happens in the next two years.

Another thing that San Francisco did was we changed our DA elections to match presidential elections. So she’s going to be up in 2024 with Joe Biden and many federal elected officials, so that will be a big turnout election. But also at that point we’ll have more data. So, the truth of the matter is, in places like San Francisco, where we did oust the progressive, we’re going to have a lot of data a couple of years from now in terms of how the more moderate centrists are doing and how people are feeling. And if the story doesn’t really change, then I’m not sure how effective that recall story is going to be overall. You could see voters turning in a different direction. But, of course, we’re not going to know for a little while.

AMY GOODMAN: So, here in New York, Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul did defeat the Trump-backed challenger, Lee Zeldin, who repeatedly attacked Hochul on crime.

LEE ZELDIN: I don’t think that if you’re two Mexican cartel drug smugglers busted with $1.2 million worth of crystal meth, that you should just be instantly released on cashless bail. Now, Kathy Hochul supports cashless bail. As soon as it got implemented, she was out there bragging about it. She chose the champion of the defund the police movement and the architect of cashless bail, Brian Benjamin — yeah, that guy who got arrested and had to resign. That was her first big decision, to make him the lieutenant governor. We need to repeal cashless bail. We need to repeal the HALT Act, amend Raise the Age and Less Is More. We need to make our streets safe again.

AMY GOODMAN: We saw this issue of crime raised across the country. And, of course, people are concerned about crime across the political spectrum, but the question is how to deal with it. So I want to go from New York — I mean, Zeldin did this in a very typical way — to places like Minnesota, specifically Minneapolis, talking about defund the police. I mean, the issue of the police force in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, was so central. In Minnesota, the former Hennepin County chief public defender Mary Moriarty will become the next county attorney, after prevailing in a campaign to replace the retiring chief prosecutor, Mike Freeman — and even to Keith Ellison, who was just reelected as Minnesota’s state attorney general.

LARA BAZELON: Minnesota is really a remarkable story, isn’t it? Because it was kind of ground zero for the campaign, quote-unquote, to “defund the police.” And so you would think that the Lee Zeldin rhetoric in New York, which of course was deployed at maximum volume, in state but also local races in Minneapolis and Minnesota would have been extremely effective. And in fact, it was not at all. And it’s so interesting. You’re absolutely right. Mary Moriarty, she had a much more tough-on-crime challenger. She is a lifelong public defender. She was the chief public defender in Minneapolis in Hennepin County. So, if anybody would have, I think, been doomed to fail under the tough-on-crime narrative, it would have been her. And in fact, it wasn’t even close. Keith Ellison, under a lot of pressure, a very strong challenger, really, people were predicting he might lose his reelection bid to be attorney general, and in fact he won. And so all of those reforms are going to stay in place.

And I think what that tells you is that this experiment, this experiment with criminal justice reform, this understanding that we can’t incarcerate our way to safety, that the kind of cruelty that some of these punishments are exerting on people to no good effect, and then the other additional problems like wrongful conviction or just criminalizing poverty so that rich people who are dangerous can buy their way out, but poor people have to stay inside, that there are a lot of voters who realize that none of these policies are humane, just or effective, and that the progressive narrative, far from being dead, is very much alive.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Lara Bazelon, we want to thank you for being with us and ask you for your final comments. What gives you hope across the country? And what message do you have for Democrats, who were caught flat-footed on this issue of crime? But now the framing of this issue, who is winning with what solutions, how that can be amplified?

LARA BAZELON: I think progressives should take heart. I don’t think running away and being terrified of these soft-on-crime labels is either necessary or effective. I think that progressives need to step forward and embrace who they are, which is, they’re going to treat people humanely; they’re going to work on alternative solutions; they’re going to bring the hammer down when it’s appropriate, but they’re not going to treat every single problem like a nail that needs to be hammered as viciously and as violently as possible, because we just know that it doesn’t work.

And so, I would tell progressive prosecutors really to embrace your platform, to stand for who you are, and to talk about your victories, whether it’s going after a serial violent predator and being effective in that respect, or doing things like restorative justice to help people who really deserve and would benefit from another kind of option. And so, to me, the message really is that be who you are, because when you are that person and the communities most impacted by crime see that you genuinely believe that the tough-on-crime approach doesn’t work, which they know, they will respond to you positively, even in the most unlikely places, like Iowa and Texas and Oklahoma, and then in purple states like Minnesota.

AMY GOODMAN: Lara Bazelon, professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, her book, Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction. She is chair of the Innocence Commission inside the San Francisco DA’s Office.

Next up, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in a case focused on the Indian Child Welfare Act, created to prevent family separations in Native communities. If this law is overturned, it could have seismic implications for Indigenous nations in the United States. Stay with us.

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