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Civil rights champion Lee Merritt is running for Texas Attorney General!

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Civil rights attorney Lee Merritt is running for Texas Attorney General!

America has never had an Attorney General like Lee Merritt — Lee has spent years working on the frontlines to end police violence and is committed to ending mass incarceration and stopping injustice.

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Real Justice elects civil rights-minded prosecutors who use the powers of their office to reduce mass incarceration, police violence, and injustice. But the only way we will overcome entrenched corruption is if we fight together.

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Victories

Real Justice has been at the forefront of local elections, ushering in prosecutors who have promised to transform a criminal legal system that is racist, oppressive, and preys on the poor and marginalized. In this short time, 18 prosecutors we supported have won elections and then implemented policies targeting excess incarceration, racial bias, police violence, and criminal legal system sprawl.

2020 Highlights

Monique Worrell (Orange and Osceola Counties, FL)

In the Democratic primary to replace State Attorney Aramis Ayala, who decided not to seek a second term as the chief prosecutor in Florida’s Ninth Circuit, Monique Worrell, a former public defender and career criminal justice reformer, defeated three challengers to capture the party’s nomination. Worrell’s campaign, which benefited from substantial grassroots support, made a number of promises that would transform Orlando’s system of prosecution, including: 

  • To seek incarceration only when it is absolutely necessary to protect the physical safety of others or when all other interventions have failed;  
  • To rarely, if ever, harness minimum mandatory penalties, recidivist sentencing enhancements, and other extreme mandatory punishments;  
  • To avoid filing charges against children in adult court whenever possible and, if it is necessary, to seek sentences focused on rehabilitation;  
  • To reduce the amount of prison time imposed across the board, to a level that protects public safety but does not imprison people for decades after they cease to pose any threat to the community; 
  • To agree to non-monetary release for all persons who can safely be released prior to trial (the office recently issued a policy requiring a release on recognizance for any person charged with a nonviolent offense);
  • To widen eligibility for diversion programs so that a greater number of individuals can benefit from them;
  • To foster police accountability by maintaining an exclusion list of officers whose testimony is unreliable and will not be used in court and by establishing an independent unit to investigate cases involving police violence or misconduct. 

Eric Rinehart (Lake County, IL)

Rinehart, a Democrat, former public defender, and criminal defense attorney, defeated a Republican incumbent in the 2020 election for Lake County State’s Attorney.  Rinehart’s campaign focused on reducing crime while “end[ing] disparities in our courthouse.” He promised to implement the following reforms when elected: 

  • Always look to alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenses; 
  • Expand the size of the treatment courts by widening eligibility;
  • Establish real diversion programs for youth; 
  • Assist residents in expunging and sealing their records;  
  • Work with nonprofit organizations to make sure that every individual on probation has an opportunity to find a job and to receive the appropriate support with respect to housing, long-term counseling, and social re-entry.

Mike Schmidt (Multnomah County, OR)

After a campaign that focused on bringing dramatic changes to the criminal legal system in Portland, RJP-backed candidate Mike Schmidt sailed to victory, securing over 75% of the vote. Schmidt’s campaign focused on:

  • Having data and research drive his prosecution and sentencing policies;
  • Focusing on treatment for individuals with substance use and mental health issues; 
  • Shifting resources away from prosecutions for petty crimes, instead focusing on serious, violent felonies; 
  • A promise to never seek the death penalty. 

After the resignation of his predecessor, Schmidt was unexpectedly placed into office four months early, in the midst of massive protests over systemic racism and police violence.  Eleven days after he was sworn in, Schmidt released a policy concerning protest-related arrests, which included a commitment to decline to prosecute the vast majority of public order offenses allegedly committed by peaceful protestors. Although a firestorm of criticism from the right vaulted Portland’s response to protesting to the forefront of national politics, Schmidt did not waver and has declined to prosecute over 80 percent of the protest cases referred to his office. In recent weeks, Schmidt has also testified before the Oregon legislature in support of bills that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences and restore voting rights to people who are incarcerated.

José Garza (Travis County, TX)

In the Democratic primary in Austin, Texas, Jose Garza, a former public defender and advocate for workers’ rights who ran a very progressive campaign focused on decarceration and police accountability, defeated incumbent Margaret Moore, who spent her career in law enforcement, by a 30 point margin. Less than two months after taking office, Garza has already announced several significant changes to the office, including: 

  • Line prosecutors will affirmatively ask judges to grant no bail or an affordable bail to all individuals who are neither a demonstrated flight risk nor pose a threat of violence to others, depending on their specific financial circumstances; 
  • Diversion opportunities will be substantially expanded, and a prior criminal history will no longer be disqualifying. Every eligible person on the docket will be screened for diversion;
  • A community task force and an immigration task force will serve as watchdogs over office conduct and ensure that Garza’s commitment not to prosecute drug cases and his policies concerning immigration are fully implemented; 

A police misconduct task force will independently review police misconduct cases that are not indicted, or where there is an acquittal at trial.

Delia Garza (Travis County, TX)

In the same election cycle, Austin voters also carried Delia Garza to victory in the race for Travis County Attorney.  The County Attorney’s Office handles the vast majority of misdemeanor prosecutions.  Garza, the most progressive candidate in a four-way race, promised to work to: 

  • Decrease racial disparities in the jail population;
  • End cash bail;
  • Fight the criminalization of poverty;
  • Decline prosecution for low-level theft; and 
  • Enforce environmental regulations.

George Gascón (Los Angeles, CA)

The 2020 Los Angeles District Attorney election pitted Gascón, the former District Attorney of San Francisco and a pioneer of the movement to reimagine prosecutorial practices, against Jackie Lacey. Lacey, a traditional, tough-on-crime incumbent, had a tenure characterized by enthusiastic use of harsh prison sentences and the death penalty, opposed reform at every turn, and failed to hold law enforcement accountable.  While Gascón faced an uphill battle after earning only 28 percent of the vote in a three-way primary, organizers and advocates coalesced around him and delivered him the victory in a November run-off.  Gascón almost immediately announced a number of new policies, including: 

  • The end of money bail for misdemeanors and low-level felonies; 
  • A prohibition on the use of sentencing enhancements, including “strike” enhancements; 
  • A commitment to never seek the death penalty; 
  • A list of several quality-of-life offenses that the office would no longer prosecute; and
  • The prioritization of many past cases, in which harsh sentences had been imposed, for resentencing pursuant to Gascón’s new guidelines.

Kim Gardner (St. Louis City, MO)

2020 also saw Kim Gardner, an embattled but inspirational leader in bringing humanity and harm-reduction principles to the criminal legal system, facing a challenge in the Democratic primary.  Gardner was challenged by a former homicide prosecutor who ran a campaign stressing the need for more and harsher responses to violent crime. However, Gardner’s impressive record and fighting spirit carried her to an easy victory

Among her many accomplishments as Circuit Attorney, Gardner has: 

  • Limited the arrest and detention of people accused of misdemeanors and low-level felonies, so that people who pose no public safety threat would not be arrested or held in custody simply because they don’t have the money to bond out;
  • Reduced the average daily St. Louis jail population by 39 percent;
  • Ended the imposition of lengthy, harsh prison sentences on people who do not pose a public safety risk;
  • Cut prison incarceration in half, without increasing crime in St. Louis;
  • Declined prosecution of simple possession of marijuana cases under 100 grams, which were disproportionately brought against people of color and wasted prosecutorial resources;
  • Expanded diversion opportunities while utilizing trained social workers inside the office to design and coordinate effective programs, which not only improved outcomes for accused individuals but also freed up resources so prosecutors could focus on more serious felonies; 
  • Began offering on-site, trauma-informed counseling to victims of domestic and/or sexual assault through a partnership with researchers at Washington University School of Social Work and Florida State University;
  • Established the first dedicated domestic violence and sexual assault fund, which provides relocation assistance and Walmart gift cards to victims so they have the resources to escape further harm;
  • Created a Conviction Integrity Unit to review claims of innocence and fight to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, an endeavor that has forced her to take on the courts and the Attorney General to free an innocent man;
  • Publicly committed to not using the testimony of officers who have been found to be untruthful, engaged in misconduct, or publicly made comments evidencing racial, ethnic, or religious prejudice;
  • Dismissed 91 cases that relied on the testimony of indicted St. Louis police officers.

Kim Foxx (Cook County, IL)

Because of Kim Foxx’s remarkable record transforming prosecution in Chicago, RJP supported her re-election in 2020. Although an incumbent, Kim had to lean on her record and overcome three challengers to secure the Democratic nomination in a race overly focused on a single, non-serious but nevertheless high profile case. Kim now has another term to add to her accomplishments, which include

Publicly urging solutions to the broad community problems that lead to violence, rather than exclusively relying on law enforcement.

2019 Highlights

Chesa Boudin (San Francisco, CA)

After a campaign focused on ending mass incarceration, reducing racial disparities in the criminal legal system, and increasing police accountability, Chesa Boudin, a former public defender, defeated the acting District Attorney of San Francisco, who had been appointed by the mayor only a month before the election. Almost immediately upon assuming office, Boudin began implementing his promised reforms, including: 

  • Ending cash bail and reducing the San Francisco jail population by 50%; 
  • Creating an innovative Economic Crimes Unit to protect workers’ rights;
  • Establishing a diversion program for primary caregivers aimed to reduce family separation caused by criminal legal system involvement;
  • Ending the use of gang and status enhancements; 
  • Creating new policies to limit charges resulting from racist, pretextual police stops;
  • Launching a Post-Conviction Unit to review excessive sentences and an independent Innocence Commission to review cases of possible wrongful conviction;
  • Creating a Do Not Call Policy to not charge or prosecute cases in which allegations rely on an uncorroborated word of an officer with prior known misconduct;
  • Creating an internal policy to require prosecutors to review all available evidence—including body camera footage—before filing charges in cases of resisting arrest/battery on an officer to ensure that the charges are not fabricated to cover up police misconduct;
  • Adopting an internal policy to compensate victims of police violence just like any other victim and co sponsoring AB 767 to call on the California Victim Compensation Board to provide compensation for police violence victims;
  • Announcing prosecutions of on-duty police officers for homicide, a first ever in San Francisco, and on-duty felony use of force; 

Declining to prosecute peaceful protestors engaged in demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd.

Jody Owens (Hinds County, MS)

In 2019, Jody Owens, former managing attorney at the Mississippi office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, defeated two opponents in the Democratic primary to become the District Attorney in Mississippi’s largest county and home to Jackson, the state capitol. Years of incompetent management had led criminal cases to languish for years before indictment or resolution, causing those who were incarcerated pretrial to regularly spend shocking periods of time simply waiting for their cases to move through the system. 

In the short time he has held the office, Owens has been able to reduce pretrial incarceration, increase the efficiency of the criminal legal system, and hold the powerful accountable.  He has: 

  • Cleared a significant backlog of criminal cases, and streamlined the process so that felony cases are indicted within 60 to 90 days (the average time to case resolution under the previous administration was 585 days);
  • Reduced the jail population by 25%;
  • Pursued accountability for police violence and misconduct by committing to present all cases involving deaths at the hands of police to the grand jury;
  • Charged 3 Jackson police officers with the murder of a 62 year old man during a traffic stop; 

Indicted numerous former staffers of the Mississippi state welfare agency, including its former director, for stealing over $4 million of federal welfare funds.

Steve Descano (Fairfax County, VA)

During the same election cycle, Steve Descano defeated incumbent and career prosecutor Ray Morrogh in the Fairfax county Democratic primary. Morrogh, who had served as a prosecutor for 35 years, campaigned primarily on his experience, and took the position that criminal justice reform was unnecessary in Fairfax county. Descano took a different view, and promised to reduce jail and prison sentences, increase pretrial release, and expand alternatives to incarceration. 

Since taking office, Steve has: 

Prohibited any prosecutor from assisting federal agents with civil immigration enforcement. 

Parisa Dehghani-Tafti (Arlington County, VA)

Dehghani-Tafti, a former public defender and innocence protection attorney, defeated incumbent Theo Stamos in Arlington County’s 2019 Democratic primary.  Stamos, a career prosecutor, had asserted that there was no need for criminal justice reform in Arlington and that mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline were not a concern there. Stamos favored prosecution of drug possession charges, the use of cash bail, and balked at declining to prosecute any offense that was on the books in Virginia.   

In her first year in office, Parisa: 

  • Announced that the office would decline misdemeanor marijuana possession charges, prompting a clash with Arlington County judges who attempted to interfere with the implementation of the policy;
  • Stopped seeking cash bail and instead instructed prosecutors to explicitly request release on conditions for all individuals who do not pose a flight risk or danger to the community;
  • Provides full discovery to defense counsel in electronic form, instead of requiring defense attorneys to spend hours taking handwritten notes while reviewing police reports in the prosecutor’s office, a practice favored by her predecessor; 
  • Expanded diversion and restorative justice opportunities for young people and adults; 
  • Recruited researchers to identify the causes of racial disparities in incarceration and to propose solutions for the office;

Enacted a policy restricting the ability of line attorneys to strike jurors without cause, a practice that has traditionally led to the disproportionate exclusion of people of color from juries nationwide. 

2018 Highlights

Joe Gonzales (Bexar County, TX)

In 2018, Joe Gonzales, a criminal defense attorney dedicated to a humane and equitable criminal legal system, took on Nicholas “Nico” LaHood, Bexar County’s infamous and volatile District Attorney, in the Democratic primary. LaHood, whose tenure was characterized by corruption and impropriety, promoted “tough-on-crime” positions, including enthusiastically seeking the death penalty, increasing the incarceration of people charged with low-level offenses, and failing to implement any sort of reform. LaHood also pledged loyalty to conservative values, publicly made Islamophobic remarks, and famously threatened to destroy the lives of two defense attorneys (one of whom was Gonzales) for simply doing what their oaths required — advocating for their client. Gonzales, originally seen as an underdog, defeated LaHood with nearly 60 percent of the vote. 

Since taking office in 2019, Gonzales has: 

  • Declined to prosecute personal possession of small amounts of controlled substances;
  • Expanded cite-and-release programs, so that individuals accused of low-level misdemeanors are never taken into custody;
  • Limited the impact of money bail by instituting a presumption that the office will recommend that all persons charged with misdemeanors or state jail felonies be released pretrial on a personal recognizance (PR) bond (which does not require any payment up front);
  • Reduced the number of people held pretrial by 34% before COVID-19 brought the court system to a standstill; 
  • Widened eligibility for pretrial diversion programming and eliminated the requirement that participants plead guilty in order to enroll. Participation in the program increased four-fold in the first 100 days of Gonzales’ administration;

Founded a Civil Rights Unit tasked with reviewing police use-of-force cases that result in deaths or injuries. The unit presents every referred case to the grand jury, and information about the outcome of the investigation will be provided to the public whenever the proceedings do not result in an indictment.

Diana Becton (Contra Costa County, CA)

Diana Becton, the first woman and the first Black District Attorney of Contra Costa County, was appointed by the county Board of Supervisors in 2017, following the resignation of her predecessor. The following year, Becton, a former Superior Court Judge, was reelected with broad support from the organizer and activist communities, including Real Justice PAC.  During her tenure, Becton has: 

  • Established the first formal diversion program for youth in the county, a restorative justice program in which young people arrested for crimes such as robbery, burglary, or assault are referred to a youth center. At the center, a team of family members or guardians, crime victims, and professional counselors work together to find a way for the person charged to make amends;
  • Declined to prosecute personal possession of all drugs;
  • Formed a conviction integrity unit to review past cases with claims of innocence;
  • Assembled a “Reimagine Youth Justice Task Force,” which will study and make recommendations on ways to invest in justice-involved youth through restorative, community-based solutions, while focusing on developing an action plan to close Juvenile Hall;  

Joined with DAs Tori Verber Salazar (San Joaquin County), Chesa Boudin (San Francisco), and George Gascon (Los Angeles) to form a new organization for progressive prosecutors, the Prosecutors Alliance of California.

Rachael Rollins (Suffolk County, MA)

In 2018, Rachael Rollins defeated a crowded field of candidates vying to replace outgoing Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley. Rollins’ campaign stressed the need for a new perspective in the criminal legal system, one informed by her experiences as a woman of color that recognized the District Attorney’s office is a service industry that must treat victims, suspects, and their families with respect and care. Rollins also made a bold pledge to decline prosecution of 15 low-level offenses, which criminalized poverty, substance use, and mental illness and disproportionately impacted Black and brown communities.  Rollins, the first woman of color ever elected to be a District Attorney in Massachusetts, has assumed center stage in the fight to reimagine justice.  She has: 

  • Released and implemented the “Rollins Memo,” a detailed document setting forth several transformative policies, including the declination or diversion of 15 charges, ending reliance on cash bail and presuming release without conditions for the majority of individuals charged, and robust data collection and information sharing practices to promote transparency and accountability;
  • Created an external “Discharge Integrity Team” to review officer-involved shootings and allegations of excessive force, instead of having prosecutors, who work with police on a daily basis, investigate these events. The team is the first of its kind in the country;
  • Publicly released a list of 136 officers who have been accused of lying, corruption, or misconduct, and whose credibility may be undermined in court. Her predecessor’s list contained fewer than 20 names;
  • Established an Integrity Review Bureau, which not only examines past convictions but also conducts broader reviews of office policies, practices, and outcomes to increase reliability in convictions, ensure sentences imposed are just, and protect against police misconduct or dishonesty. The unit has, among other accomplishments, facilitated the release of 8 wrongfully convicted individuals who had served over 240 years combined;
  • Responded to the COVID-19 crisis by joining with the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to ask the state’s Supreme Judicial Court to release certain low-risk inmates from prison in the interest of public health;

Created PUSH (Project for Unsolved Suffolk Homicides), an office-wide initiative that focuses on the 1300+ unsolved homicides in Suffolk county, homicides that are predominantly of Black and brown victims. The office has, to date, reviewed over 175 cases that might have otherwise remained untouched, bringing charges in several.

Wesley Bell (St. Louis County, MO)

Four years after protests rocked Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown, local activists and organizers were able harness a groundswell of support around Prosecuting Attorney candidate Wesley Bell, a Ferguson city councilman. After a campaign that criticized the use of cash bail, vowed to increase diversion programs, and promised to transform the manner in which the office handled investigations into police violence, Bell, the county’s first Black elected prosecutor, defeated a 7-time incumbent who had presided over the county’s criminal legal system with a tough-on-crime, pro-police, approach for over two decades.  Since taking office, Bell has radically changed criminal prosecution in St. Louis county: 

  • Within a month of taking office, Bell issued directives requiring his attorneys, among other things, to decline prosecution of less than 100 grams of marijuana and failure to pay child support; stop overcharging defendants to pressure them into pleas; and disclose the entirety of their files to defense counsel;
  • Bell’s office’s bail policy favored issuing summonses, rather than warrants, for all misdemeanors and low-level felonies, stopped seeking cash bail for misdemeanor offenses, and declined to incarcerate those who weren’t a flight risk if they failed to appear in court on a single occasion; 
  • Since Bell took office, the St. Louis County jail population has decreased by 35%, from an average daily population of 1295 to one of 840 individuals; 
  • He has established treatment and diversion programs, in partnership with local health organizations, to address rather than criminalize addiction and mental illness; 

He has kept his commitment never to seek the death penalty, and has urged President Biden to commute the sentences of all the individuals on federal death row.

2017 Highlights

Larry Krasner (Philadelphia, PA)

Following a campaign that demonstrated he would likely be the most progressive District Attorney in the country, Larry Krasner’s 2017 election to the top law enforcement post in Philadelphia surprised many, but energized and inspired even more.  The election of a former public defender and civil rights attorney to serve as Philadelphia’s chief prosecutor was a testament to the power of local organizing and activism, and the pressing need for a true transformation of our nation’s criminal legal system.  Since taking office, Krasner has dramatically decreased incarceration, supervision, and the intrusiveness of the criminal legal system in marginalized communities.  The office has

  • Decreased the county jail population by 40%;
  • As compared to the prior administration, reduced the amount of prison time imposed by over 18,000 years; 
  • Decreased years of probation and parole supervision by 57%; 
  • Kept 98% of children in the juvenile court system, implemented restorative justice and expanded diversion programs for juveniles, and reduced out-of-home placement of children by over 80%; 
  • Established a conviction integrity unit that has exonerated 17 individuals (in 18 cases) in just three years;  
  • Taken a public health approach to drug use, by declining to prosecute or diverting all simple drug possession cases, advocated for harm reduction centers where those grappling with addiction can be supervised and kept safe, and sued Big Pharma for its role in the opioid epidemic; 
  • Held police accountable by fearlessly prosecuting police officers for abusing their power, including a Chief Inspector for sexual abuse against women officers, two on-duty officers for the killings of men who were unarmed when they were shot, and police personnel who have assaulted peaceful protesters.

Stephanie Morales (Portsmouth, VA)

Stephanie Morales is the first woman, and first woman of color, to serve as Commonwealth Attorney in Portsmouth, Virginia.  She was originally elected in 2015, and Real Justice PAC supported her reelection campaign in 2017.  Morales has been a leader both in Virginia and nationwide on the urgent need to reimagine our criminal legal system.  Morales has: 

  • Spoken on the national stage about the systemic racism at work in our criminal legal system;
  • Spearheaded the effort to form an alternative Commonwealth Attorney Association that advocated for legislative changes, including an end to mandatory minimum sentences, the death penalty, cash bail, and “three-strikes”-type sentencing enhancement for property crimes;
  • Established the “Ctrl + Alt + Del Program” through which line prosecutors directly engage with those who have been convicted of crimes. The program provides information on reentry resources, conducts job preparedness seminars, encourages rights restoration and discusses potential pitfalls the participants may face;
  • Ensured police are held accountable for acts of violence, including securing a conviction in 2016 against a former Portsmouth police officer who killed an unarmed, 18-year-old Black man;  

Worked to restore the voting rights of formerly incarcerated persons and allowed the criminal records of some to be automatically expunged

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