A lot has been said in the last week about conservative ideology prevailing in many elections, despite Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump. We have examined some of those elections in the U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, and state legislatures. But there is one area in which progressive policy ideas have clearly triumphed this year, particularly across the South: criminal justice reform.
Elected law enforcement officials in southern states certainly have historical significance for American progress: they stood as the racist safeguard against the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, as figures like Bull Connor led brutal attacks on peaceful anti-racism protesters. Now, after a summer of Black Lives Matter protests responding to both police killings of unarmed Black people (like Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and Rayshard Brooks in Georgia) and more systemic issues like mass incarceration, Southerners have been given plenty of opportunities to elect sheriffs and prosecutors with an eye for reform. And, largely, they have chosen to do so.
First, let’s look at a few losses for reform candidates, then move on to the many victories.
Pinellas County (Tampa, FL) Sheriff: In perhaps the most unfortunate election result we’ll examine today, Bob Gualtieri won a third term as sheriff in a landslide against Eliseo Santana, whose campaign focused on ending contracts with ICE and reducing arrests in order to stop cycles of poverty and crime. That platform made it all too easy for Gualtieri to paint Santana as soft on crime, and he will now be free to continue his pattern of problematic positions and policies. As sheriff, Gualtieri has resisted placing body cameras on deputies, while embracing mass surveillance of Pinellas County citizens by expanding his department’s use of the oft-abused Face Analysis Comparison & Examination System. After Clearwater resident Michael Drejka shot and killed an unarmed Black man, Markeis McGlockton, in a parking lot in 2018, Sheriff Gualtieri declined to arrest Drejka, claiming he had operated within the law. He was clearly proven wrong, as Drejka was charged by the state one month later, and ultimately sentenced to twenty years in prison for manslaughter. Following the 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Gualtieri advocated for allowing public school teachers to carry firearms in classrooms. More recently, Gualtieri lobbied a local judge to deny bail for detained Black Lives Matter protesters.
Brevard County (Titusville, FL) Sheriff: Incumbent Sheriff Wayne Ivey easily defeated his challenger, former public defender Alton Edmond. Ivey is best known for videos he posts to social media, including one in which he encourages citizens to shoot those they believe to be criminals before law enforcement can arrive on scene, similar to the actions taken by Ahmaud Arbery’s alleged murderers in Georgia. Two years ago, a Black Iraq War veteran died in the custody of the Brevard County Sheriff’s Department after being beaten, tased, and pepper-sprayed by deputies during an arrest stemming from a PTSD episode. Ivey has refused to release video of the incident.
Ninth Circuit (Charleston/Berkeley Counties, SC) Solicitor: The Ninth Circuit’s chief prosecutor, Scarlett Wilson, held off a challenge from Ben Pogue, who campaigned to end mass incarceration and fight systemic racism in Charleston.
Tarrant County (Fort Worth, TX) Sheriff: MAGA-loving Sheriff Bill Wayborn, who has contracted with ICE to enforce the Trump Administration’s draconian immigration policies, defeated challenger Vance Keyes, a Marine Corps veteran and long-time Fort Worth police officer, despite a controversial year for his department, in which at least ten people have died in custody.
Incredibly, that’s it. Of all the high-profile sheriff and prosecutor elections across southern states, these were the only major losses for reform candidates. Now, let’s take a look at the many victories, and why they matter.
Ninth District (Orlando, FL) State Attorney: In 2016, Aramis Ayala was elected in the Ninth District to become Florida’s first Black state attorney, but after four years of intense pushback from Republicans for her criminal justice reform agenda, she chose not to seek re-election this year. In her place, the Bernie Sanders-endorsed Monique Worrell defeated a “law and order” candidate to assume Ayala’s position, after a campaign focused on treating incarceration as a last resort, limiting the use of cash bail, and implementing evidence-based diversion programs.
13th District (Tampa, FL) State Attorney: Incumbent state attorney Andrew Warren, who has set up a conviction review unit to help exonerate wrongfully imprisoned people in the the state, and worked to re-enfranchise ex-felons with court debts, defeated a Republican challenger who campaigned on the idea that sentences should actually be more strict.
Gwinnett County (Atlanta, GA) Sheriff: In the suburbs of Atlanta, Sheriff Butch Conway has championed the controversial 287(g) program that empowers local law enforcement agencies to enforce the Trump Administration’s problematic immigration policies on behalf of ICE. While Sheriff Conway is retiring, his chief deputy promised to continue the program if elected. Instead, Gwinnett County voters elected Keybo Taylor, who pledged to cut ties with ICE and improve conditions in the county jail, to become the county’s first Black sheriff.
Cobb County (Atlanta, GA) Sheriff: Not far from Gwinnett County, another candidate promising to stop the 287(g) program, Craig Owens, defeated incumbent Sheriff Neil Warren, who has allowed the county jail to deteriorate as jailhouse suicides increase.
Clarke County (Athens, GA) Sheriff: John Williams, who defeated incumbent Sheriff Ira Edwards in the Democratic primary over the summer, and ran on a campaign to end cooperation with ICE, has defeated Republican Robert Hare in the general election.
Charleston County (Charleston, SC) Sheriff: Kristin Graziano has unseated Al Cannon, who has served as Charleston’s sheriff for thirty-two years. Graziano campaigned on a promise to end the department’s 287(g) program and limit arrests for minor offenses.
Harris County (Houston, TX) Sheriff: Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who has helped negotiate bail reform in Harris County (to great success), defeated a challenger who has denounced the reform as being weak on crime.
Nueces County (Corpus Christi, TX) District Attorney: Incumbent district attorney Mark Gonzalez, who has taken steps to stop arrests for simple marijuana possession, won re-election over a Republican challenger hoping for a return to the status quo.
Travis County (Austin, TX) District Attorney: Jose Garza, running on one of the most progressive platforms of any prosecutorial candidate in the country, has been elected Travis County district attorney, pledging to never seek the death penalty and to decline to prosecute possession or sale of any drug under one gram.
The success of reform candidates this year is simply staggering, but they reflect a growing understanding in the South that our current criminal justice system is failing. And there are two more high-profile district attorney elections that have moved to a run-off.
In Athens, Georgia, former state legislator Deborah Gonzalez is in a tight race with incumbent district attorney Brian Patterson, running on promises to limit the use of cash bail and to not prosecute simple marijuana possession cases.
And in New Orleans, Keva Landrum and City Councilman Jason Williams are heading to a run-off in a battle for the office soon to be vacated by Orleans Parish district attorney Leon Cannizzarro. Landrum, who has spent the last decade as a judge in criminal courts, served briefly as interim district attorney beginning in 2007, when she gained notoriety for prosecuting repeat marijuana possession offenses as felonies. She is taking a softer line in her campaign, but is clearly the status quo candidate next to Williams, who has vowed not to prosecute marijuana cases and to never use “habitual offender” statutes against defendants to beef up sentences. And there is certainly reason to take Williams at his word: he has a long track record of criminal justice reform in the New Orleans City Council, including pushes for bail reform, penalty reductions for marijuana possession, and increased funding for public defenders.
This year’s victors will now serve as potential role models for sheriffs and prosecutors across the country, and especially across the South. Their actions, if successful, should be seen as playbooks for other counties to adopt. If your county wasn’t covered here, please consider closely paying attention to these leaders, and suggesting that your own sheriff and prosecutors follow their lead on immigration, bail reform, and mass incarceration.