Other U.S. cities have begun implementing similar processes. Last year, Seattle reallocated millions from the police budget, asking residents to decide how to spend it to create “true public health and safety.”
Local Courts Become the Next Frontier in Criminal Justice Reform
Court systems across the country are labyrinthine and opaque, with little attention typically paid toward the powerful local judges who wield great sway in deciding who sits in jail, who to evict and how harsh to make bail.
This year, in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County (home to Pittsburgh), progressive groups made a concerted effort to change that. They promoted a slate of eight candidates for the county’s Court of Common Pleas, which handles criminal matters; the candidates vowed to use their discretion to shorten prison sentences and reduce pretrial detention.
Five of the candidates on this progressive slate prevailed in the Democratic primary in May, and all five won the general election on Tuesday and are headed for the bench.
Among these incoming judges is Lisa Middleman, a former public defender who ran for district attorney in 2019. I talked to her at the time about her platform that called for ending cash bail and mandatory minimum sentencing. Middleman lost then to an incumbent DA who remains in office and has pursued far more punitive policies on which she’ll now get to weigh in as a judge.
But further up the state’s judicial ballot, it’s Republicans who scored wins.
A statewide election was set to decide the partisan balance on Pennsylvania’s 15-member Superior Court, which hears appeals on most criminal matters. (Each party currently holds seven seats.) GOP nominee Megan Sullivan, a former prosecutor, prevailed in that election, in what was a good night overall for her party: Republicans also won the state’s sole election for the state Supreme Court, though Democrats will keep a 5-2 majority on that highest court.
Squalid Jail Conditions Get Scrutiny
The New Orleans jail has been under a consent decree with the federal government for years over its dismal confinement conditions, and federal monitors said last month that the jail had grown less compliant. In New York’s Erie County (home to Buffalo), a series of deaths in the county jail fueled lawsuits and local organizing against jail conditions there.
In both places, the elected sheriff is responsible for jails, and the issue has been central to those campaigns.
Erie County’s sheriff race remains too close to call as of publication; Republican John Garcia, who was endorsed by the outgoing Republican sheriff Timothy Howard, holds a lead over Democrat Kimberley Beatty, who had vowed some improvements to jail conditions such as ending solitary confinement.
In New Orleans, Democratic sheriff Marlin Gusman, who has said courts hold him to too high a standard, is up for reelection next week; the jail and what one challenger called its “backsliding” has been an issue.
Meanwhile, New York City, one of the few jurisdictions that has no sheriff, has seen a surge of investigations in recent weeks on the “abject” and “hellish” conditions inside Rikers Island. Newly-elected mayor Eric Adams said this week he agreed with outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio that dealing with the conditions on Rikers called for lifting a ban on solitary confinement, but it’s unclear whether he’ll make it a priority.
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