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Tags: 2020 Elections | criminaljustice

Local Votes Matter Most in Criminal Justice Efforts

illustration of hands casting ballots over scales of justice

Hannah Cox By Friday, 30 October 2020 10:27 AM Current | Bio | Archive

For supporters of criminal justice reform, this election cycle is really a mixed bag. Both major parties have checkered histories marked with deeply problematic policies and stances that fly in the face of pro-life, individual liberty and/or limited government values.

Fortunately, the battle for criminal justice reform is mostly a state and local issue, as the vast majority of incarcerated people are held in these systems.

That's good news for a few reasons. One, things actually get done at the state and local level. Coalitions are formed, bipartisan deals are struck, and bills are passed. Congress may be hopelessly gridlocked, but state legislatures are still quite effective at doing their job (that's making/changing the laws for the multitude of people who seem confused lately).

Secondly, criminal justice reform is really popular across the political spectrum. At the local level, where lawmakers are still at least partially accountable to their constituents instead of crony special interests, that means there's an impetus for change. Local lawmakers want to represent and please their voters.

And lastly, there's momentum. Over the past decade we've seen a tremendous amount of reform pass with bipartisan support. States are getting smarter with their tax dollars, listening to the growing body of science around trauma and violence prevention, and innovating.

Just about everybody is on board with this movement it seems – victims, their family members, faith leaders from a wide array of religions, libertarians, conservatives, Democrats, progressives, mental health providers, attorneys, judges, former members of corrections, and often even law enforcement. There's one, consistent opposition in this whole equation: the district attorney associations. Every state has one, and it is always powerful.

District attorneys wield extraordinary power in our system (power that should be curtailed.) They decide what cases take precedence, which ones will proceed to trial, what charges to bring, and where to focus state resources. Not only do they have almost unilateral influence over which laws are enforced and how, they take it a step further and weigh in heavily on which laws are made or reformed, applying significant pressure on lawmakers.

They do this by presenting hyperbolic testimony in legislative hearings that misleads lawmakers on the impact of legislation, by calling lawmakers who pass reform "soft on crime" to their constituents, by threatening to run against lawmakers who vote for reform or endorse their opponents, and by fear-mongering the public when legislation is being considered.

District attorneys are elected locally, and the ballot box is one of the only checks on their power. Even for vast and blatant misconduct, they rarely receive more than a slap on the wrist.

But voters seldom pay attention to these races at all. Most district attorneys are re-elected term after term after term. In fact, few ever even face an opponent.

The Curtis Flowers case out of Mississippi and its reprehensible prosecutor, Doug Evans, have recently become infamous thanks to a meticulously researched podcast that did the investigative work in the case the state failed to do – likely saving an innocent man's life.

Evans has been a district attorney for almost 30 years. He has spent 23 of them targeting Flowers for a crime it seems certain he did not commit. Evans committed numerous acts of misconduct over these years – repeated jury stacking that targeted black community members, witness tampering, Brady violations, misstating facts, arguing facts that weren't in evidence – it was bad. Each time he got a conviction, it was overturned due to his malfeasance. But then Evans would pursue the charges again.

All in all, there were six death penalty trials for Flowers (70% of the costs of the death penalty come from the trial alone, and it is estimated these trials cost at least $1 million in excess of other trials.) There would have been a seventh if Evans had anything to say about it.

Fortunately, sanity finally stepped in. The sixth trial's outcome was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the behavior by Evans was so outrageous it caused Justice Clarence Thomas, normally a silent observer from the bench, to intervene and ask a question for the first time in three years. Thanks to the popularity of the podcast, public pressure, the Supreme Court's ruling, and a new state attorney general, the case was finally taken out of Evans' hands.

After examining the actual evidence, the new attorney general decided there was no reason to try the case against Flowers again, and all charges against him were dropped.

Evans is still in office. In his last election, he ran unopposed.

It is imperative that the people in this country wake up to the importance of voting in their elections for district attorney – and pay attention to what they do post-election as well. If we want criminal justice reform, we can no longer allow these government agents to operate in the dark and outside of accountability.

Vote, and don't overlook your state and local elections.

Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Read Hannah Cox's Reports — More Here.

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For supporters of criminal justice reform, this election cycle is really a mixed bag.
Friday, 30 October 2020 10:27 AM
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