Reform prosecutors made further inroads into the administration of American law enforcement, sweeping county elections in Northern Virginia and gaining control of prosecutor’s offices in Pennsylvania and California. Progressive prosecutors rode a blue wave of suburban votes on November 5, 2019 that solidified Democratic control of every state legislative and prosecutorial seat in the Northern Virginia counties bordering the nation’s capital and wrested control of county government from one of Philadelphia’s most historically Republican suburbs. But the insurgency was ideological, not partisan, as former public defender Chesa Boudin (pictured) unseated the candidate backed by the Democratic Party in a close District Attorney’s race in San Francisco.

The new prosecutors ran on platforms of reducing incarceration, ending cash bail and “the criminalization of poverty,” promoting police and prosecutorial accountability, and reducing reliance on harsh punishments, including the death penalty. “It’s not a moment, it’s a movement,” tweeted Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, whose office is considered a pioneer in progressive-oriented criminal legal reform.

The reform-prosecutor movement has had a direct impact on the declining use of capital punishment across the country. Between 2015 and 2018, voters replaced county prosecutors in a third of the U.S. counties with the largest county death rows. The clearest shift in prosecutorial power came in Northern Virginia, where four of the most populous counties elected progressive or liberal prosecutors as their new commonwealth attorneys. The election marked a “sea change” in the state’s approach to law enforcement, said criminal defense attorney Marvin D. Miller.

Two of the four winning Northern Virginia candidates in last week’s elections campaigned explicitly against capital punishment. Democrat Steve Descano, who faced independent Jonathan Fahey in Fairfax County, promised to end use of the death penalty. “Victims’ families need closure. Communities need outcomes that accord with their values. The death penalty provides neither,” Descano said on his campaign website. He also criticized the death penalty as “ineffective at stopping crime, in addition to being prohibitively expensive. There is no link between the death penalty and community safety,” he said. During her successful campaign for commonwealth attorney in Arlington, former public defender Parisa Dehghani-Tafti pledged to never seek the death penalty. Her website called capital punishment “inhumane, expensive, and racially-biased.” Citing the case of Virginia death-row exoneree Earl Washington, who came within days of execution, she said “[t]oo many people sentenced to death have been found innocent and exonerated.”

Prince William County held elections to replace retiring Commonwealth Attorney Paul Ebert, whose office put more people on death row in his 51-year tenure than any other county in the state and accounted for more executions than 99.3% of all U.S. counties. Incoming commonwealth attorney Amy Ashworth campaigned for office saying she is “personally against” the death penalty and that its imposition “should be extraordinarily rare.” Candidate Buta Biberaj, who won Loudoun County’s race, said that “we have to be very mindful as to how we use [the death penalty] … Death is final.”

In Southeastern Pennsylvania, Jack Stollsteimer became the first Democrat ever to hold the position of Delaware County District Attorney, joining Krasner in neighboring Philadelphia among the ranks of progressive prosecutors. Democrats also swept the county commissioner elections, gaining control of the county government for the first time since the Civil War. During the campaign, Stollsteimer had criticized the incumbent for opposing reopening the nearly 40-year-old murder case of Leroy Evans. Evans, who has consistently maintained his innocence, was implicated by a teen offender who had been threatened with the death penalty.

In San Francisco, former public defender Chesa Boudin — whose parents were incarcerated as members of the radical Weather Underground and whose father is still serving a life sentence — won the race for district attorney. Boudin ran as an anti-establishment progressive prosecutor, and eschewed use of the death penalty. “The people of San Francisco have sent a powerful and clear message: It’s time for radical change to how we envision justice,” Boudin said in a text message to The Appeal. “I’m humbled to be a part of this movement that is unwavering in its demand for transformation.”


Justin Jouvenal, A sea change’ for pros­e­cu­tors in Northern Virginia as lib­er­al demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates sweep races, Washington Post, November 5, 2019; Lowkell, Exclusive Interview with Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney Democratic Nominee Buta Biberaj: Part 3, Blue Virginia, May 26, 2019; Daniel Nichanian, It Is Not Smart to Focus on Prosecuting Victimless Crimes like Drug Possession:” An Interview with Amy Ashworth, The Appeal, May 30, 2019; Julia Terruso, The blue wave crashed down on Pennsylvania again, as vot­ers from Philly to Delaware County turned left, Philadelphia Inquirer, November 6, 2019; Alex Rose, Dem Stollsteimer upends incum­bent GOP D.A. Copeland, Daily Times, November 6, 2019; Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg, PUBLIC DEFENDER CHESA BOUDIN WINS SAN FRANCISCO D.A. RACE IN MAJOR VICTORY FOR PROGRESSIVE PROSECUTOR MOVEMENT, The Appeal, November 9, 2019; Jonah Raskin, Chesa Boudin: A Radical Child of the Criminal Justice System Seeks to Reform the San Francisco DA’s Office, CounterPunch, January 30, 2019; Heather Knight, How Chesa Boudin, a pub­lic defend­er who nev­er pros­e­cut­ed a case, won SF D.A. race, San Francisco Chronicle, November 11, 2019; Rory Fleming, A Mixed Election Night for Reform Prosecutors: The Key Results, Filter Magazine, November 6, 2019; Alex Rose, District attor­ney can­di­date urges reopen­ing of 1980 mur­der inves­ti­ga­tion, Delco Times, February 72019.

Visit the pros­e­cu­tors’ cam­paign web­sites: Amy Ashworth (VA), Buta Biberaj (VA), Chesa Boudin (CA), Parisa Dehghani-Tafti (VA), Steve Descano (VA), and Jack Stollsteimer (PA).