In a Walmart parking lot in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 2015, a white police officer named Stephen Rankin shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen-year-old black man named William Chapman. “This is my second one,” he told a bystander seconds after firing the fatal shots, seemingly in reference to an incident four years earlier, when he had shot and killed another unarmed man, an immigrant from Kazakhstan. Rankin, a Navy veteran, had been arresting Chapman for shoplifting when, he claimed, Chapman charged him in a manner so threatening that he feared for his life, leaving him no option but to shoot to kill—the standard and almost invariably successful defense for officers when called to account for shooting civilians. Rankin had faced no charges for his earlier killing, but this time, something unexpected happened: Rankin was indicted on a charge of first-degree murder by Portsmouth’s newly elected chief prosecutor, thirty-one-year-old Stephanie Morales. Furthermore, she announced that she would try the case herself, the first time she had ever prosecuted a homicide. “No one could remember us having an actual prosecution for the killing of an unarmed person by the police,” Morales told me. “I got a lot of feedback, a lot of people saying, ‘You shouldn’t try this case. If you don’t win, it may affect your reelection. Let someone else do it.’ ”
The case reached court a year later. An eyewitness testified that Rankin had been in no immediate danger, and forensic evidence showed that the officer had been some distance away from Chapman when he fired. When the defense argued that Chapman had approached Rankin aggressively, Morales pointed out that Rankin had “brought a gun into what is at best a fist fight.” After a four-day trial, the jury found Rankin guilty of voluntary manslaughter, earning him a two-and-a-half-year sentence that was later upheld on appeal.
Since taking office, Morales has sharply reduced the number of people in her jurisdiction sent to prison—which, counterintuitively, has cost her resources, since the state uses indictments as a yardstick for allocating funds—moved to end prosecution for marijuana possession, and done her best to end the incarceration of people who cannot afford to post bail. She has also indicted a second Portsmouth officer, Jeremy Durocher, for shooting a fleeing black eighteen-year-old named Deontrace Ward in the back, an act that had earned the shooter an officer of the month award and a medal of valor. To date, Morales is just one of three prosecutors in the entire nation to have indicted more than one police officer for shooting black men with a gun or taser (Durocher is still awaiting trial).
Morales, who is black, is also the first woman to be elected as a Portsmouth commonwealth’s attorney, as district attorneys are called in Virginia. An assistant prosecutor when she initially ran for the office in a February 2015 special election, Morales defeated two opponents, one of whom was backed by the police union. For years the office had been headed by a traditional law-and-order prosecutor dedicated first and foremost to winning cases, and Morales had observed the ways that approach all too often destroyed people’s lives. She noted the racist injustices routinely generated in the courtroom, where a white defendant in a petty larceny case would escape without a criminal record and a black defendant on a similar charge would be offered no such leniency. “It was really eye-opening,” she told me, “to see in real life where someone could do something entirely different with a similarly situated case and potentially change somebody’s life. One for the better, by giving them a second chance, and the other for the worse, by not giving them a second chance.”
Rather than simply enabling the conveyor belt from arrests to conviction and punishment, Morales resolved to act as “somebody who’s invested in the success of the overall community and not just the success of a case.” Time and again, in our long conversations over the phone and in her office, she emphasized her holistic vision of the job: “providing every service that is within my power to ensure that people get opportunities to thrive in life.” Above all, she reiterated, she keeps in mind that no case happens in isolation from the surrounding community. Portsmouth is a majority-black, working-class city of around one hundred thousand people. As one might expect, its population has a more intimate acquaintance with the criminal-justice system than whiter, more suburban areas where, as Morales observed, “people don’t have to think about the implications when someone has been accused of a crime and ends up incarcerated and has to raise bail.” In her community, she says, the question may well be, “Who is coming up with that bail money? It may be a wife or a mother.”
Even if her Portsmouth constituents have not been directly embroiled in the criminal-justice system themselves, they may well have a family member or a church friend who has. These are the people who elected her, Morales said, and she wants them to view her as a “public servant” rather than as a detached and impersonal instrument of law enforcement. She instructs her prosecutors (almost all of whom she has hired since taking office, replacing the team she inherited) to look at a case from every single angle rather than simply working off the arrest-charge sheet supplied by police, and to see “whether [a defendant] has a history of mental illness, whether this person has physical ailments. Do we know the conditions that they were raised in? Have [we] spoken to every victim and every witness?” To that end, she has hired an investigator—a veteran homicide detective—to probe cases and provide her with fuller details on cases, independent of the police.
Relations with the force during the four years Morales has been in office have not exactly been smooth, to the extent that her chief opponent in her 2017 reelection campaign pledged to voters that he would “mend relationships with the Portsmouth Police Department.” But, just as Morales tasks her prosecutors with taking every human element of a case into consideration, she strives to encourage the Portsmouth police to conduct themselves in the same manner. One afternoon in early June, I accompanied her over to the local police academy for a class she had organized. The police chief, she told me, had agreed that “a conversation about treating people with dignity would be really good for new recruits.”
When we arrived, three assistant prosecutors were explaining some basic points relating to officers’ legal obligations under the Fourth Amendment—specifically, how and when a straightforward traffic stop could be expanded to search a vehicle, a topic on which the students’ understanding sounded distinctly cloudy. “How am I going to investigate if I can’t make a search?” asked one of the officers. “We’re talking about accountability to our citizens, right?” said Morales, taking control of the discussion. “I want to relieve the pressure and let you know that you’re not going to always have a full investigation on every stop,” she continued. “I’m not saying that I think you guys want to arrest everybody. I just want to let you know that there are times when it’s not going to result in an investigation, and that’s okay.”
It is no secret that strange things are happening in the world of American criminal justice. Mass incarceration has become a cause for national concern—even Donald Trump finds it in his interest to brag about his role in effecting reform, however limited. Most importantly, in big cities across the country, traditionally punitive prosecutors’ offices are being taken over by enlightened newcomers. Some of these upsets have received national attention, such as the election of the defense lawyer and civil-rights activist Larry Krasner as district attorney in Philadelphia, Kim Foxx in Chicago, Wesley Bell in St. Louis, and Melissa Nelson in Jacksonville, Florida, not to mention the recent narrow loss by Tiffany Cabán to a machine-backed candidate in Queens, New York. These electoral results have been fueled, to a considerable extent, by the fury directed at police shootings, and the newly elected prosecutors have pledged to make their offices accountable to the communities they serve.
It is impossible to understand the importance of this change without being aware of the enormous power wielded by prosecutors in this country. Most people who end up in jail or prison arrive courtesy of the twenty-seven thousand prosecutors in county and city district attorney offices across the country. (Prisoners in federal lockups account for only 12 percent of the national prison population.) Some offices are enormous, such as that of the Los Angeles County D.A., with one thousand prosecutors and a budget of over $400 million, and others are tiny, such as the two-person office in Rappahannock County, Virginia. In almost every state (except Alaska, Connecticut, and New Jersey), district attorneys are elected. Despite the potential for democratic accountability, however, D.A. offices have traditionally assumed low profiles. Incumbents can generally expect lengthy tenure untroubled by electoral opponents, with voter indifference reflected in minimal turnout on Election Day. The 12 percent turnout in Morales’s first election, for example, was typical. Yet the power of any D.A.’s office is “gigantic,” in the words of Rob Smith, the executive director of The Justice Collaborative, a criminal-justice reform organization.
“Think of it this way,” he told me. “The most powerful single individual who can personally and directly affect the largest number of individual lives in this country is not Donald Trump. It’s Jackie Lacey, district attorney for Los Angeles County. There are fully ten million people in the area covered by her office that she can potentially choose to indict, or not indict, on major or lesser charges, send to jail or not, and all without having to refer to the city council or anyone else.” Smith singled out Lacey because her office covers a larger population than anywhere else, but D.A.s across the country exercise similarly untrammeled power. For this reason, in his 2017 book Locked In, Fordham law professor John Pfaff identified increasingly punitive prosecutors as the central cause of the decades-long explosion in the U.S. prison population. Ninety-five percent of criminal cases, he pointed out, are never tried in court. Rather, prosecutors deploy plea bargains as a potent tool in eliciting guilty pleas from defendants, especially poor ones, who dare not gamble on a trial. The result is that prosecutors, rather than judges or juries, decide whom to punish and how severely. Decades ago, plea agreements were merely an option, but today, given the threat of extraordinarily harsh sentences, defendants—those accused of drug crimes in particular—cannot afford to reject the offer of a shorter spell behind bars in exchange for a guilty plea.
Additionally, prosecutors decide whether to charge offenses as misdemeanors or felonies—a distinction that largely determines whether an arrest will lead to prison. Between 1994 and 2008, Pfaff observed, the national crime rate fell sharply and the number of police arrests fell by some 10 percent, but the likelihood that an arrest would lead to a felony case doubled. Pfaff’s analysis questioned the significance of other factors that are commonly invoked as prime causes fueling mass incarceration, most prominently the war on drugs (only 20 percent of people in prison are there for drug offenses) and the rise of the private-prison industry and its attendant lobbyists (only 8 percent of prisoners are housed in private facilities). Critics have pointed out that this analysis downplays the large numbers of people convicted of drug offenses who churn through the system with short sentences and still emerge with a felony record, but Pfaff’s point that prosecutors are the driving force in herding people into prison nevertheless stands.
The late Harvard law professor William Stuntz, an eloquent critic of mass incarceration, argued that historically the role of the prosecutor as an instrument of blind injustice is a consequence of the changing composition of American cities. Once upon a time, prosecutors represented the populations they served. As Irish immigrants flooded into Boston in the late nineteenth century, for example, the prosecutors they elected—along with mayors, other local officials, and the police force—came out of the same community. But even though that surge in immigration coincided with a crime wave, mass incarceration did not explode as it did a century later. As Stuntz wrote,
Cops, crime victims, criminals, and the jurors who judged them—these were not wholly distinct communities; they overlapped. . . . Rage at the depredations of criminals was tempered by empathy for defendants charged with [a] crime: one hesitates before sending neighbors’ sons to the state penitentiary.
Then, in the mid-twentieth century, the Great Migration brought new black populations to Northern cities from the American South. Unlike the earlier influx of immigrants, however, they remained relatively powerless. As crime became a major issue in majority-black inner cities, police forces remained overwhelmingly white, with few connections to the populations they policed. (Portsmouth’s officers, for example, are still largely recruited from veterans exiting military service at the giant naval base on the city’s edge.) Likewise prosecutors became more isolated from the communities over which they presided. Their electoral districts tended to include not only the largely black urban core but also the white suburbs, and jurors no longer had much of a role to play, given overcrowded courts and prosecutors’ overwhelming reliance on plea bargains. Hence, the arrival of prosecutors like Morales represents an existential challenge to well-established patterns of political authority and deeply ingrained local power structures.
When I first met Morales, in May, she had been having a bad day. She didn’t show it as she sat down to dinner, but a key victory in her fight to reform the local criminal-justice system had just recently been jeopardized, thanks to maneuvers by her political opponents in the city. A month earlier, Morales had fulfilled a campaign pledge to stop prosecuting, and thereby imprisoning, people for marijuana possession, securing the necessary agreement from the city’s judges to dismiss such cases. “It is really time we think about how we start to decarcerate as opposed to incarcerating for every type of crime,” she said, announcing the initiative. But now, a month later, the judges had abruptly reversed their decision, denying they had ever consented to dismiss such charges. Morales angrily pointed out that they were backtracking on a firm agreement.
Though Morales herself was discreet as to who had fomented the reversal, my inquiries indicated that this was the work of Louise Lucas, a local black state senator who has a reputation for getting her own way in the cut and thrust of city politics. Fueling such suspicions was the fact that one of the judges was married to one of Lucas’s close friends and political allies. Another was Lucas’s neighbor. The senator, a former shipyard worker who regularly runs unopposed, appears to inspire a certain degree of fear in the local community. No one with whom I talked about Lucas was willing to be quoted on the record. “She’s invulnerable,” one resident told me. Lucas, through a legislative assistant, declined to comment on this article.
But Morales had shown that she was not prepared to treat Lucas and her circle with the deference they were accustomed to receiving from the city’s elected officials. Morales had, for example, requested a special prosecutor in a case involving Lucas’s preferred candidate for sheriff. Apparently in response, Lucas, along with two friends—themselves prominent in local affairs—publicly announced via Facebook that they were withdrawing the support they had given Morales in her initial election campaign. “If the lies persist,” Lucas commented darkly, “we will have no option but to open Pandora’s Box.” Morales retorted that she had “not been elected to be anyone’s pawn.” She told me, “I’ve heard [Lucas] constantly say to people, ‘There’s no permanent friends and no permanent enemies in politics.’ And I say, well, you live and you learn every day, because she just found one. Once you attack me, you’re done.”
A few weeks later, I was reminded of the obstacles Morales faced in the tangled hair ball of local politics as I listened to Rashad Robinson, president of the racial-justice organization Color of Change, at a meeting of criminal-justice reform activists in Washington. His topic was the post-election experience of prosecutors who are elected on a program of reform. “How do we translate presence to power?” he asked the room. “Presence is visibility on the front page of the paper, but presence alone is not power. Just simply being at the table doesn’t mean that the rules change.” This is a lesson being absorbed around the country, in cities and counties where recently elected progressive prosecutors have generated strong and in some cases vicious reactions from within the offices they have inherited, as well as from local elites whose settled ways they have challenged. As soon as the former public defender Wesley Bell was elected in St. Louis County, for example, the prosecutors in his office joined the police union. Kim Foxx, elected on the back of a police-shooting scandal and cover-up, has faced determined and concerted opposition from the Chicago police, and the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, has happily signed a bill put forth by Republicans in the state assembly that allows the state attorney general to override Larry Krasner’s authority on the prosecution of certain crimes in Philadelphia. The Fraternal Order of Police, meanwhile, has erected billboards around that city proclaiming enough is enough.
These new big-city prosecutors have yet to run for reelection and thus discover whether their constituents—as opposed to special-interest groups like the police—endorse their actions. Morales, however, faced reelection in November 2017 and chose to run proudly on her progressive record. In contrast to her first campaign, Morales described the second as “long, drawn-out, and nasty” with “negative article after negative article after negative article” in the local media. Days before the vote, the Virginian-Pilot, the dominant local paper, bemoaning “an absence of confidence in how the incumbent leads so important an office,” and disapprovingly citing the turnover in her office, endorsed Morales’s opponent. Bizarrely, the paper hailed this individual, a local, independently wealthy defense attorney who had pledged to mend relations with police, as “the candidate for change.” Powerful local politicians such as Senator Lucas and her allies had already turned against Morales, but such opposition was no match for the furious energy with which Morales tore into her second campaign. Across the length and breadth of the city, she unstintingly promoted her agenda of cutting the prison population—“whatever the number is of people who are incarcerated coming out of my city, it’s too many”—ending the system of cash bail, and instituting other reforms. In the end, Morales not only won, but crushed her opponent by a definitive 26 percent margin.
Morales’s initial victory in 2015 marked a breach in the dam that was quickly followed by a flood of progressive victories in major cities. Years before, however, one campaign had prefigured her success. It happened in Albany, New York, in 2004, and was powered by opposition to the Rockefeller drug laws, the viciously repressive measures introduced in 1973 by then-governor Nelson Rockefeller. Previously progressive on drug policy, Rockefeller nurtured national ambitions, and sought to toughen his image by imposing harsh penalties for possession of even small quantities of drugs, including marijuana. The New York State prison population exploded, growing by some 500 percent over the next thirty years. Despite widespread criticism—Rockefeller’s own brother and granddaughter advocated against the laws—serious efforts at reform were unsuccessful.
“The legislators wouldn’t do anything because they were scared of being denounced by district attorneys as soft on crime,” Bill Lipton, one of the original organizers of the New York Working Families Party (W.F.P.), told me. “So, we had to make an example of a D.A. in order to give the legislature the push they needed to act.” As the 2004 elections approached, Lipton’s research revealed that there was a big opportunity in Albany, a city that had long been under the rule of a Democratic machine legendary for its ironclad grip on power. The Democratic incumbent running for reelection, Paul Clyne, was, in Lipton’s words, “a real right-wing Democrat, a leading spokesperson for defending the Rockefeller drug laws.” He was also vice president of the New York District Attorneys Association, a private organization that lobbied in defense of the laws. Furthermore, Clyne was the offspring of a powerful Albany Democratic family—his father was John Clyne, an influential judge known as “Maximum John” for his habit of handing down exceptionally harsh sentences—and was thus deemed invulnerable.
To run against Clyne, Lipton and W.F.P. colleagues managed to recruit an assistant prosecutor named David Soares, the son of immigrants from Cape Verde. (In hopes of protecting his job, Soares dutifully reported his intentions to Clyne, who promptly fired him.) “We did it fast,” recalls Lipton, nostalgically. “At the beginning, there was incredible skepticism in the African-American community. I heard a lot of, ‘This is a plantation’; ‘You have no idea what you’re getting into’; ‘This guy hasn’t paid his dues’; ‘No one’s heard of him.’ ” Financing to the tune of $80,000 from the copious coffers of George Soros was deployed to build an intense field operation. “Toward the end, it felt like a social movement. I remember thinking this sense of optimism and mobilization must have been a little bit of what it felt like in the civil-rights movement,” recalls Lipton. “I remember seeing people, especially in the projects—poor, working-class black people—with hope in their eyes, like, ‘Really? The D.A.? We could have a black guy as D.A.?’ Because it was almost inconceivable that, in a place like Albany, law enforcement could be something that the black community had some power over.” Soares beat Clyne by twenty-one points in the all-important Democratic primary, and continued on to a comfortable victory over a Republican. His campaign had one central theme: “Paul Clyne supports the Rockefeller drug laws.” Soon after Soares’s victory, the state legislature began a rollback of the heinous measures. Soares, having won reelection multiple times, remains the Albany district attorney to this day.
In another way, however, the victory proved hollow. “I spent the next ten years trying to raise money for another D.A. race,” Lipton told me. “I said, ‘We’ve had this incredible victory. We can do it again.’ But I couldn’t get any interest.” A decade later, though, a series of events connected to police violence against black Americans finally initiated a broader shift toward long-delayed reform. The most well-known of these was the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent refusal of a grand jury convened by St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch to indict the shooter, which sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. Then, the next year, Dale Cox, the first assistant district attorney of Caddo Parish, Louisiana, told a reporter from the Shreveport Times, “We need to kill more people. . . . I think the death penalty should be used more often. It has come to the place in our society where it is used less often, and I think crime in our society has expanded so expeditiously.” Though buried deep in the article, the gruesome quote, along with other similarly unbalanced comments by Cox, drew national attention, especially when it emerged that Caddo Parish had been sending more people per capita to death row—most of them black—than any other county in the United States, with a majority of these cases having been prosecuted by Cox himself. That fall’s election for Caddo D.A. elicited not only national attention but also nearly half a million dollars in campaign funding from Soros.
Far to the north, a nonjudicial execution spurred a still more momentous result. In Chicago, Kim Foxx was running for state’s attorney (the Illinois term for a D.A.) for Cook County, which encompasses the city. The incumbent, Anita Alvarez, had chalked up a strong record of condoning police misconduct, however egregious, but enjoyed widespread support among the Latino community, making Foxx’s struggle an uphill battle. Then a judge ordered the release of video showing a Chicago policeman, Jason Van Dyke, murdering Laquan McDonald by pumping sixteen shots into his back as the seventeen-year-old lay wounded on the ground. Alvarez, in concert with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, had deliberately suppressed the tape for a year. Its release gave a powerful boost to Foxx’s campaign, and she eventually powered to a nineteen-point victory in the March 2016 primary and a forty-four-point wipeout over a Republican in the general election, margins confirming that a progressive agenda may actually represent mainstream opinion. The degree of change represented by this kind of upset is illustrated by a story Foxx later told Rashad Robinson. Shortly after taking office, Foxx gave her staff a list of the community activists she wanted to meet with: people who had supported her campaign, people who had advocated around police and judicial reform. The staff demurred, telling her, “These are the people who are banned from our office.”
“You’re going to have to unban them,” retorted Foxx, “so they can come upstairs.”
It was important that these activists be allowed upstairs not only as a demonstration of Foxx’s new authority, but also because they had been a major force in her victory and were now the constituency to whom she answered. Whereas there was no broader movement in the wake of the Albany victory after Soros temporarily lost interest in the issue, today’s push for reform is backed by a wide array of forces. Soros has given important support in select races, such as those in Chicago and Philadelphia, while the involvement of national grassroots organizations, such as Color of Change, or local ones, such as the Texas Organizing Project, have funded others. The Real Justice PAC has raised almost $2 million from small donors for reform campaigns since the start of 2018, and other new resources are being provided by funders advised by groups such as the Open Philanthropy Project. (Full disclosure: this writer’s daughter, Chloe Cockburn, directs giving on criminal-justice reform at Open Philanthropy.) As a result, today’s reform effort has a far deeper bench than it did in 2004, and it is thereby much better equipped to withstand the inevitable backlash from entrenched interests.
On June 25 of this year, Democrats in Queens, New York, voted in the primary that would effectively select the next D.A. The previous day, Pamela Liebman, CEO of the Corcoran Group, a leading New York real estate agency, sent her two thousand employees an email:
Though the D.A.’s authority may not have a direct effect on the real estate business in Queens or the other boroughs, a far-left candidate’s election to this influential post sets a precedent that could severely stunt our business—in the borough and beyond.
She therefore made abundantly clear her preference for Melinda Katz, a candidate who had already reaped a third of her campaign funds from the real estate industry.
Liebman had it right. Tiffany Cabán, the so-called far-left candidate, did indeed pose a threat to established interests, and not just because she was a queer Latinx public defender pledging to cut mass incarceration by ending cash bail; raise the standard of proof required for charging misdemeanors; refuse to prosecute sex workers and recreational drug users; and institute a host of other reforms. Given that the Queens office under the previous D.A., the late Richard Brown, had distinguished itself by resisting reform and sending people to jail for minor misdemeanors, Cabán’s message was bound to resonate. But she proclaimed an even wider agenda of economic justice, promising, for example, to investigate and prosecute abusive landlords. “Bad landlords should not be landlords,” declared her website. “If they have property in Queens, they will be held accountable in Queens. Bad landlords will be forced to provide adequate housing.” To a real estate industry that had recently seen the glittering prize of Amazon’s proposed invasion of Queens snatched away thanks to popular mobilization, such talk must have seemed ominous indeed. For corporate interests, Cabán’s express intentions of pursuing “innovative and proactive enforcement against discriminatory, monopolistic policies and practices that destroy our neighborhood economies” was the stuff of nightmares.
The thirty-one-year-old Cabán seemed an unlikely prospect to take on Katz and the Queens Democratic machine. She had been a public defender for seven years, and had no experience running a large office, let alone an operation as big as the Queens D.A. organization, which employs some three hundred attorneys. But the machine had been caught unawares by the 2018 victory of Cabán’s fellow Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose district includes a large portion of north-central Queens, and was now alert to the threat of new candidates coming from the left. More than simply selecting a D.A., the election was also about who should wield power in New York–grassroots progressives or a hidebound, corrupt Democratic machine.
Katz herself had, from the Democratic establishment’s viewpoint, a deep background in city politics and thus an entirely acceptable résumé. She was the Queens borough president, a former New York City Council member—where she was an influential player in rezoning decisions—and a former real estate industry lobbyist. Accordingly, she garnered a slew of potent endorsements, including from Governor Andrew Cuomo, along with five members of Congress, notably Gregory Meeks, whose district covers most of the borough, as well as the powerful Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, an especially strong force in south-central Queens’s large African-American community. Indicating how much D.A. politics had shifted leftward, however, Katz’s platform was that of a moderate progressive, pledging to roll back low-level drug prosecutions and proposing other benign measures, though stopping far short of Cabán’s more ambitious proposals.
For Bill Lipton, the election brought back happy memories of the epic battle for Albany fifteen years prior. Initially skeptical of Cabán’s chances because of her inexperience, he soon changed his mind. “The D.S.A. [Democratic Socialists of America] were supporting her early on. Then we [the Working Families Party] endorsed,” said Lipton. “It was really a lot like the Soares campaign in terms of momentum. All happening very fast, and grassroots energy.” Schooled by years of struggle in the unsparing world of New York electoral politics, the W.F.P. was in a position to give the Cabán campaign considerable organizational help. Lipton lent a hand by helping to write a campaign plan, as well as hiring the campaign manager and finding the communications director. Overall, Cabán enjoyed the support of a formidable grassroots coalition, including not just the D.S.A. and W.F.P., but also VOCAL, an advocacy group originally focused on H.I.V. victims that has since expanded to confront issues like mass incarceration; the immigrant-rights group Make the Road New York; and resonant endorsements from Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Larry Krasner, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. More surprisingly, the New York Times endorsed Cabán in a strongly worded editorial lauding her as “unencumbered by ties to the borough power structure and free to pursue her commitment to serve the community by doing more than just winning convictions.” The endorsement’s primary author was Mara Gay, a young black journalist who appears to be dragging the venerable organ, or at least its editorial pages, into modern times on such pressing issues.
Following a recount, Katz was declared the winner by fifty-five votes, but either way, Cabán’s emergence and meteoric rise demonstrated that the grip of the New York Democratic machine is slackening. Last year, the Working Families Party successfully helped to defeat the Independent Democratic Conference (I.D.C.), a group of New York state senators who regularly voted with Republicans, thereby enabling Governor Cuomo’s efforts to control the agenda and block reforms advanced by the Democratic majority. As a result of the I.D.C.’s elimination, the legislature was able to pass a progressive-driven raft of measures, including bills addressing sexual harassment, reproductive rights, criminal justice, and rent control and other affordable-housing legislation.
The current upheaval of progressive prosecutors has two further profound implications for American politics. First, while deploying “progressive” as a convenient description for this new breed of prosecutor might suggest that the movement is synonymous with left-wing Democrats of the Ocasio-Cortez variety, it is by no means an exclusively Democratic preserve, since the need to reform an iniquitous system has a certain amount of bipartisan appeal. Charles Koch himself quietly funds reform efforts, and Mark Holden, the general counsel at Koch Industries, has argued that “criminal-justice reform is good for all of us—the rich, the poor, and everyone else.” Pat Nolan, a former Republican legislator who was himself incarcerated for receiving illegal campaign contributions, has spent decades working to mobilize support for reform. And in Jacksonville, Florida, former state’s attorney Angela Corey—who had earned the title of “cruelest prosecutor in America” from The Nation for her eagerness to crowd death row and lock up children for life—was unseated in a 2016 Republican primary by Melissa Nelson, a corporate lawyer who ran on a pledge to radically reshape Corey’s harsh regime. By no stretch of the imagination a progressive Democrat, Nelson has nevertheless largely fulfilled her promise. Among other innovations, she’s instituted a human-rights division headed by a former defense attorney to investigate police misconduct and imposed strict controls on incarcerating juveniles. Just as an issue like Medicare for All is presented as a far-left initiative despite polls indicating widespread support across the political spectrum, so too does the notion of criminal-justice reform as a strictly “progressive” priority elide the fact that it’s also endorsed by elements on the right.
In addition, the office of district attorney has long been a rung on the ladder of political ascent, whose climbers believe that nothing embellishes a résumé like a punitive record. That sentiment—just like the recent push for criminal-justice reform—has been bipartisan, espoused both by Jeff Sessions in his early days as an Alabama prosecutor and by Kamala Harris as D.A. in San Francisco. As of July 2017, at least thirty-eight states had had a senator, governor, or attorney general in the past ten years who was once a prosecutor, according to Fordham law professor Jed Shugerman, who has made a special study of the phenomenon. In his view, prosecution as a “stepping stone for higher office” has had “dramatic consequences in American criminal law and mass incarceration.” If our future leaders no longer make their way by striving to lock up as many of their fellow citizens as possible and instead display a record of “providing every service that is within [their] power to ensure that people get opportunities to thrive in life,” it will make for both a happier and a more just country.
The established order may be strong and motivated to resist change, but, as Stephanie Morales says, “The people who’ve been elected are fighters.” Back in her office, as she discussed the messy realities of enforcing her agenda—courts, for example, can mandate cash bail whether she asks for it or not—she reiterated her sense of the difficulties before her. “People are facing challenges all over,” she acknowledged. “But nobody is giving up.”