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Should Hard-Line Prosecutors Be Nervous?

Voters delivered two big upsets in local Democratic primaries Tuesday night: in Cook County, Ill. they ousted state’s attorney Anita Alvarez. And in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, incumbent county prosecutor Timothy McGinty lost his re-election bid. Both prosecutors lost in part due to criticism that they failed to hold police accountable for high-profile shootings of young blacks.

The results were especially surprising given that incumbent prosecutors are often a shoo-in in such low-turnout, low-information races. According to a2009 study of prosecutorial elections in 10 states from 1996 to 2006, prosecutors won re-election 95 percent of the time. In 85 percent of races, they ran unopposed.

The national debate on police accountability and criminal justice reform seems to have turned these once-quiet elections into a new battleground. Even big money liberal donors like George Soros have been throwing cash into local prosecutor races. As activists celebrate victories in Chicago and Cleveland, the question now is: will it continue, and where?

“Those [elections in Chicago and Cleveland] are two anecdotes, not data. But they might be signaling the start of a new era of prosecutor elections,” says Ronald Wright, a criminal law professor at Wake Forest University and the author of the 2009 study. “When two very high-visibility prosecutors are rejected by the voters, then that makes me wonder, is the story changing?”

It’s not just that these state’s attorneys lost their seat, but how, that is significant. Prosecutorial elections, like those for judges, have traditionally been fought over promises to be tougher on crime and, in many districts, to hand down harsher sentences. Candidates often trumpet endorsements by police. Wright’s survey found that prosecutors discuss their “relationship with law enforcement” and a promise of “more violent crime enforcement” far more often than they speak of fairness or equity.

Read more at The Marshall Project.

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