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Public Defenders Challenge Prosecutors In Primaries

The filing period for prosecutor elections closed in five states over the past month, giving one indication of whether the midterms may shake up the criminal justice system’s status quo. With primaries looming as early as May, criminal justice reformers are pressing their case from North Carolina’s biggest cities to Omaha and the Portland suburbs, reports Bolts.

Public defenders and legal aid advocates are running in Arkansas, Nebraska, and Oregon. Places like Little Rock and Salem have not seen a contested election in decades. In North Carolina, where racial justice protests drew thousands in 2020, challengers are running on reform promises. In a Utah race, a Republican reform incumbent who faces a tough-on-crime challenger.

The filing deadline is often the end of the road for a prosecutor election, as most races only drew one candidate. In Oregon, whose filing deadline passed on Tuesday, just two of 15 DA elections feature multiple contenders.

In Arkansas and North Carolina, filing deadlines passed last week. Roughly one-third of their elections will be competitive this year. In Nebraska and Utah, the two most populous counties at least will have contested elections. In Texas, 76 percent of elections are uncontested this year.

Bolts’ offers a preliminary guide to the prosecutor elections in those five states.

--In Arkansas, Larry Jegley has been the prosecutor in the state’s most populous judicial district (Perry and Pulaski counties, home to Little Rock) since 1997, and yet he has never faced an opponent—not once, over eight elections. This year Jegley is retiring. Alicia Walton, a public defender, is running to become the first Black prosecutor in the history of a district whose population is 37 percent Black.

Opponent Will Jones is the chief deputy prosecutor in a neighboring district who worked under Jegley for more than a decade. Another public defender, Sonia Fonticiella, is running for prosecutor in the eastern part of the state. She will face deputy prosecutors Martin Lilly and Corey Seats.

--In Nebraska, the stakes are highest in the only two counties with at least 100,000 residents with a contested election. Both races pit a Republican incumbent against a Democratic challenger who proposes some reforms in counties that went for Joe Biden in 2020. In Omaha: Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine switched to the GOP two years ago after the Democratic Party accused him of furthering white supremacy; he had brought no charges against the man who killed James Scurlock, a Black protester. In November, Kleine will face Democratic challenger Dave Pantos, the former director of Legal Aid of Nebraska.

--In Charlotte, N.C., challenger Tim Emry has been part of the local coalition Decarcerate Mecklenburg, which has sought to reduce jail population during the COVID-19 pandemic; he faces DA Spencer Merriweather. In Raleigh, Demon Cheston, whose criminal defense practice involves capital punishment cases, is challenging DA Lorrin Freeman.

--Oregon’s DAs are active in opposing criminal justice reform legislation, making these elections meaningful for statewide policy as well. A coalition of three reform DAs formed after the 2020 elections, with the new DA of Multnomah County (Portland) banding together with those of smaller Deschutes and Wasco counties to defend reform bills. The group is set to lose one of its three members as Deschutes County DA Jon Hummel is retiring. He will be replaced by Steve Gunnels, a longtime prosecutor who is the only candidate who filed.

--In Utah, David Leavitt of Utah County is a rare Republican prosecutor who champions criminal justice reform and opposes the death penalty. His re-election race will test the GOP appetite for such changers. He faces Jeffrey Gray, an assistant Utah solicitor general who touts ties to law enforcement and promises to bring back the death penalty.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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