Los Angeles Times

Republican­s’ ominous strategy to stop criminal justice reform

Recent actions reveal a plan to thwart Democrats, the Black vote and even democracy itself.


Criminal justice reformers are mistakenly finding comfort in a federal court ruling last month that took Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to task for removing a twice-elected, reform-oriented county prosecutor from office.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said the Republican governor violated both the 1st Amendment and Florida law by ousting State Atty. Andrew Warren — a Democrat elected by voters in Tampa and the rest of Hillsborou­gh County — for speaking out against Florida’s 15-week abortion ban and proposed legislatio­n to criminaliz­e gender-affirming care.

But DeSantis’ blatantly political and anti-democratic maneuver worked. Warren remains out of office. Voters in the historical­ly Democratic county remain disenfranc­hised and are stuck with an unelected, tough-on-crime prosecutor chosen by DeSantis because, Hinkle said, there was nothing he could do to restore Warren to his office.

Reform prosecutor­s generally seek to divert lower-level defendants to treatment, and to reserve the harshest prosecutio­n for the most dangerous crimes. Many reformers question the cozy relationsh­ip that more traditiona­l prosecutor­s have with police, and the hands-off attitude they too often take in officer misconduct cases.

In Shelby County, Tenn., for example, recently elected reform District Atty. Steve Mulroy quickly filed felony charges against the Memphis officers caught on video beating motorist Tyre Nichols to death.

Reform prosecutor­s come from both major parties. But most, like Mulroy, are Democrats who represent urban areas.

Another example is Larry Krasner, a Democrat whom Philadelph­ia voters twice elected as district attorney. Last year, Krasner became the test case for the criminal justice counter-reformatio­n when he was impeached by Pennsylvan­ia’s Republican­dominated Legislatur­e. The issue is currently pending in court.

The Philadelph­ia and Tampa cases illustrate the Republican­s’ ominous strategy to thwart the reform prosecutor movement: Misuse state processes that were designed to protect against corrupt or incompeten­t county officials. Subvert democracy by, in effect, voiding local elections. Override liberal Democratic urban areas’ elected officials with Republican­s who represent or are responsive to more conservati­ve rural parts of the state. Declare the actions to be legitimate state preemption of local decision-making in the name of public safety.

Republican politician­s and their law enforcemen­t allies are now following this playbook in cities and counties around the nation, as summarized in a January report by the Local Solutions Support Center and the Public Rights Project. Attacks against prosecutor­ial discretion come in the form of lawsuits, legislatio­n and state bar complaints.

Republican lawmakers in Texas are considerin­g bills that would empower state Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton — who, ironically, continues to hold office despite being indicted on felony charges — to block locally elected prosecutor­s from limiting enforcemen­t of any criminal offense.

Iowa’s Republican governor proposed restructur­ing state government to allow the state attorney general (currently a Republican) to take cases away from district attorneys like the recently elected reform D.A. in Polk County, who is a Democrat. And on and on.

Left unexamined, the anti-reform movement’s arguments may sound rational. For example, Virginia Republican Atty. Gen. Jason Miyares said: “Prosecutor­s cannot cherry pick laws to enforce and laws to ignore — that’s not how our government works, and it establishe­s a dangerous precedent.”

The barb was directed at Loudoun County Commonweal­th’s Atty. Buta Biberaj, a Democrat, who like many of her reform counterpar­ts in other jurisdicti­ons ran on a promise to focus on violent crimes and not prosecute certain traffic cases and a selection of misdemeano­rs like trespassin­g and possession of some types of illegal drugs. But in fact, selective enforcemen­t is exactly how government does and must work. State lawmakers adopt hundreds of new laws each year, and there are too many minor offenses committed in most jurisdicti­ons to prosecute. Voters in local elections pick their district attorneys based on how they promise to use their office’s limited resources.

Prosecutor­ial discretion can be abused — for example, if a district attorney goes after Asian shoplifter­s but not Latino ones. But the proper remedies in such situations are civil rights lawsuits, court orders and elections, not partisan preemption of local voters’ choices.

Subversion of elections like Warren’s and Krasner’s is a tactic that, if successful, will not stop with district attorneys. Republican­s may see their future in Jackson, Miss. The Mississipp­i House has signed on to a plan to carve out a new jurisdicti­on within the Black-majority city with judges and prosecutor­s who would be appointed by three state officials, all of whom are white (no Black person has held statewide office in Mississipp­i since 1890).

The move is ostensibly a response to crime. If it succeeds, it will in fact be a case of white Republican­s assaulting criminal justice reform, local government, majority rule, Democrats and the Black vote on a scale that surpasses anything that DeSantis or other Republican­s around the nation have yet attempted.

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