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Overzealous Prosecutors Are Losing Elections

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Together they have disproportionately targeted black defendants, tried juveniles as adults, condemned schoolchildren to prison, and let police get away with murder. And over the past year, they have lost their bids for reelection.

In a year with renewed attention on the corrosive and discriminatory effects of harsh sentencing, notorious, tough-on-crime local prosecutors are increasing being held accountable for perpetuating an overzealous style of law and order.

Until recently, these elections were battles of who could appear harsher on crime. The same hysteria over crime and illegal drugs that drove mass incarceration in the late 1980s and 1990s also created intense political pressure. Racially-charged fearmongering, exemplified by the infamous ‘Willie Horton’ ad that attacked presidential candidate Michael Dukakis for backing criminal rehabilitation, boosted scores of district attorneys and judges who promised to crack down and pursue the toughest sentences available.

But not anymore. In March, Chicago area prosecutor Anita Alvarez was voted out of office after she covered up the police shooting of Laquan McDonald and condemned the innocent. That same day, Tim McGinty, a Cleveland prosecutor who refused to charge Tamir Rice’s shooter, also lost reelection. And on Tuesday, Jacksonville, Florida state attorney Angela Corey was defeated in her primary after criminal justice advocates exposed her propensity to try juveniles as adults and to sentence defendants to die.

“This could be a sea change and might mean that prosecutors might become more accountable to the public.”

And those were just the most high-profile losses. Across the country, hard-line district attorneys are losing races that were once considered shoo-ins for incumbents.

“The era of tough-on-crime rhetoric is coming to a close as voters realize that overzealous prosecutors have abused their power for too long,” said law professor Daniel Medwed. “This could be a sea change and might mean that prosecutors might become more accountable to the public.”

This year, 935 prosecutors across the country are up for election — 40 percent of all elected local prosecutors. In all but four states, prosecutors are elected to office.