For the first time in nearly 40 years, voters in Republican-leaning Harris County, Texas – where the state’s largest city, Houston, is located – have elected a Democrat as their next district attorney. “This is Houston, in all of its glory and diversity, and I am so proud to be your DA,” Kim Ogg told supporters Tuesday night. “We’re going to have a system with fair bail; we’re going to have a system that doesn’t oppress the poor; we’re going to have a system that goes after the rapists and the robbers.”
Ogg, who took on GOP incumbent DA Devon Anderson, won handily with 54 percent of the vote in a race that focused on the failings of the criminal justice system in a county long known for hardline, tough-on-crime rhetoric.
Indeed, Anderson’s tenure as DA (she was first appointed in 2013 and then won the seat outright, against Ogg, in the 2014 general election) was marred by scandal: She refused to grant a new punishment hearing to Duane Buck, whose death penalty trial was tainted by racially-biased testimony, and declined to do anything to address prosecutorial misconduct in the wrongful conviction of another death penalty defendant; and she belatedly acknowledged that her office, for months, was aware of the destruction of more than 21,000 pieces of evidence related to pending criminal cases – and yet failed to inform defense attorneys, allowing her line prosecutors to secure plea deals in cases where no evidence existed to back up charges.
Perhaps most infamously, Anderson defended the decision to jail an emotionally fragile rape victim – a move she said was necessary in order to ensure that the woman would testify against her attacker. “That case, more than any other, showed the difference between the kind of justice Devon Anderson and her staff have brought Harris County: A heavy-handed justice, a justice that hurts victims,” Ogg said during her election night victory speech. “And let me say, we have to have a system that treats everyone with equal respect.”
Ogg’s victory is one in a string of electoral successes for more progressive prosecutor candidates who have run campaigns focused on the reforming the excesses of the criminal justice system.
In Chicago, for example, Democratic candidate Kim Foxx roundly defeated incumbent county attorney Anita Alvarez in their primary race and won the seat in an overwhelming election-day victory, promising to remake Cook County justice. “Our work is just beginning, this election night is the start of a journey to fixing a system that we know needs repair,” she said.
In an unexpected upset in Hillsborough County, Florida – which includes Tampa – former federal prosecutor Andrew Warren on Tuesday night unseated veteran prosecutor Mark Ober, whose four-term tenure Warren said was plagued by “persistent problems of overzealous prosecutors, ineffective defense lawyers, and racial bias.”
And in Jefferson County, Alabama, one of just 16 so-called outlier counties across the U.S. that are responsible for sending to death row between five and 10 individuals from 2010-2015, eight-year incumbent Republican DA Brandon Falls has conceded defeat to Democratic challenger Charles Todd Henderson, who vowed to “bring about real criminal justice reform.” Henderson has said the mass incarceration of drug users should end and that he supports neither the death penalty “nor incarcerating our children in adult jails and prisons.”
Reform-minded candidates were also elected in Corpus Christi, TX; Denver, CO; Jacksonville, FL; St. Louis, MO; and Santa Fe, NM — among other jurisdictions. To many criminal justice stakeholders, these and other election victories signal a growing trend. “These results signify that overzealous prosecutors that resort to draconian sentences and pursue convictions with a win-at-all-costs mentality will soon see themselves being replaced with leaders who have rejected these failed policies of the 1980s and 90s, and are truly committed to reforming the justice system with proven, evidence-based, equitable solutions that increase public safety,” said the Fair Punishment Project’s co-founder and Harvard Law professor Ronald Sullivan.
Indeed, in Houston on Tuesday night Ogg pledged to bring balance back to a historically and notoriously punitive office. Harris County needs a criminal justice system that “treats people fairly and applies laws equally regardless of the neighborhood,” she said. “This is our time.”