Why you should care

Because governor races nationwide have shown the limits of bipartisan criminal justice reform.

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In Barack Obama’s final year as president, it seemed as if Democrats and Republicans might finally pass a criminal justice bill cementing a rare bipartisan victory. That momentum was a culmination of statewide efforts in places like Texas, Louisiana and Minnesota, where Democrats sought to end the punitive policies of the discriminatory war on drugs, and Republicans saw a fix to the ballooning costs of housing prisoners in what had become the most incarcerated nation in the world. Those efforts first stalled when Donald Trump barnstormed his way to the White House in 2016, promising to crack down on crime. Now, they’re unraveling.

Despite rhetorical feints toward reform — including last week’s Oval Office meeting with rapper Kanye West — the Trump administration has favored the tough-on-crime style of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And it’s now dripping down to the states, where the decadelong trend toward a rehabilitation-focused justice system is faltering as governor races nationwide become a referendum on Trump and his policies. From Georgia to Virginia to Maryland, the seeming truce on criminal justice is splitting at the seams, that rupture playing out in key races.

Republicans speak of rising gangs, crime rates and the fear of joining bloody cities like Chicago or Baltimore. Meanwhile, Democrats have pushed criminal justice policy further to the left. They’re advocating not just for more lenient sentences, but also for ending cash bail, giving illegal immigrants driver’s licenses and refusing to help gang-busting forces like the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which some progressives have suggested disbanding.

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At Plaza Fiesta in Atlanta, a young girl looks up at Stacey Abrams (back center left), a Democrat vying to be the nation’s first female African-American governor.

Source OZY/Nick Fouriezos

“It’s about who we are afraid of, and who we are mad at,” says Barry Loudermilk, a Republican congressman and a justice reform proponent from suburban Atlanta. “Those who we are afraid of, we should be locking up to keep them out of society. With those we are simply mad at, we should look at the idea of restitution.”

Yet he is well aware of the lost common ground on an issue that, until recently, was shared across party lines. “The partisanship is so divided,” Loudermilk laments.

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The dichotomy is most obvious in Georgia, where departing Republican governor Nathan Deal has been a leader in criminal justice reform by reducing minimum sentences, lowering the prison population, refocusing around rehabilitation efforts and banning discriminatory hiring practices against ex-offenders. Consider the difference in approaches between the two people trying to replace him: Republican nominee Brian Kemp, the secretary of state, and Democrat Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House minority leader vying to be the nation’s first female African-American governor.

During a weeklong bus tour, Kemp shifts stump speech jokes toward a more serious note. “We have a street gang problem in our state,” he says in the still 9 a.m. light of the Rose Lawn Museum in Cartersville, a quiet exurb an hour from Atlanta. “We have the Mexican drug cartel that has created a distribution hub in the state of Georgia,” he adds, crediting a federal prosecutor for that assessment. His website mimics that mentality: Despite saying on the trail that he wants to continue Deal’s successful criminal justice reform policies, there is no mention of reform — only a “stop and dismantle” initiative announced in March that starts with three paragraphs focused on illegal immigration. That section ends with the creation of a “Gang Strike Team” to assist communities “under siege” by groups like MS-13, the Los Angeles–based criminal gang that has become a regular calling card in Trump tweets and rallies.

“I think Stacey Abrams is trying to take credit for Governor Deal’s justice reform that, by the way, I’ve supported,” Kemp says when asked about criminal justice reform in an interview, but he does not talk in more detail about how he plans to reduce incarceration or sentencing. “We have over 70,000 street gang members in our state. … What is that costing our state, when we have young people who need to be in the workforce, who are dying and need to be in treatment?”

You can’t talk about public safety when you are cycling people through a system that makes them better and better criminals rather than better and better citizens.

Stacey Abrams, Democratic nominee for Georgia governor

Meanwhile, Abrams has keyed in on the story of her brother, Walter, a father of one daughter who she says self-medicated with drugs to treat his undiagnosed mental health problem and is now serving time in prison. She notes that he is a model prisoner when receiving treatment, but that “the minute he is released,” he loses health care and the ability to afford the medicine treating his bipolar disorder. Because employers can ask him whether he has been convicted for a felony, he is virtually unhireable — and housing is almost impossible to come by. “Most people won’t give you a place to live when your last address was a state penitentiary,” she quips during a speech at La Plaza Fiesta, a mall full of Hispanic businesses in the Atlanta suburbs. Her criminal justice policies include focusing on rehabilitation, banning “the box” that employers use to suss out former felons when they apply for jobs and eliminating cash bail that she believes “criminalizes” being poor.

“We all want public safety,” Abrams says. “But I know you can’t talk about public safety when you are cycling people through a system that makes them better and better criminals rather than better and better citizens.”

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In last year’s Virginia elections, Republican governor candidate Ed Gillespie highlighted fears around gangs like MS-13 and launched an ad called “Kill, Rape, Control,” which blamed illegal immigrants for gang activity. While challenging Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the New York primaries, Democrat Cynthia Nixon sought to end solitary confinement and the trying of children as adults while also suggesting she would give undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses so they could avoid encounters with ICE. It’s also become an issue in Maryland, where Democrat Ben Jealous accuses incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan of following the Trump administration’s lead.

“He parrots Jeff Sessions, and he stays stuck in stupid,” Jealous says. Hogan says he wants to distinguish between nonviolent offenders and violent ones. In 2016, he signed the Justice Reinvestment Act, passed by a Democrat-controlled state legislature. But Jealous criticizes Hogan for mimicking a war on drugs mentality and says the governor’s policies have been misaligned. “I will end failed broken-windows policies that encourage police officers to focus on low-level infractions and [instead] get back to a first-things-first approach,” Jealous says.

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Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp shakes hands with a police officer at a campaign event at Muse Farms in Haralson County.

Source OZY/Nick Fouriezos

Trump hasn’t helped, openly voicing his admiration for the state-sanctioned extrajudicial killing of hundreds of drug traffickers under President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. And he has not thrown his weight behind any criminal justice reform, which has gone nowhere in this Congress thanks to the opposition of key conservatives. There’s far more talk about crime on the campaign trail.

Back in Georgia, the two candidates have sought to use criminal justice as a defining wedge issue. Kemp, an agribusiness and construction entrepreneur, talks about “our” values and immediately ties the gang problem to illegal immigration and Mexican drug cartels. “I haven’t raised any fears over immigration. I support legal immigration, good, robust guest worker programs,” he says. Kemp criticizes Abrams for abstaining from, or voting against, bills he says would have clamped down on police assaulters, sex offenders and gang members. “That is not a Georgia value,” he tells supporters.

Abrams says Kemp has mischaracterized those votes and points to having worked with Governor Deal on multiple bills to punish drug and sex traffickers, including the formation of a street gang and terrorism database created in 2010. “He cannot claim primacy,” Abrams says. “He is using the issue of gangs to push a rhetoric that is dangerous. … We have to understand the responsibility is to prevent the crime and rehabilitate the criminals.” She still thinks there is “a moderate-conservative-liberal coalition” around criminal justice reform but adds, in a dig at Kemp, “not everybody shares those values.”

Loudermilk says he hopes reforms gain traction once the midterms are over, but also believes Kemp’s rhetoric on gangs is justified. “Illegal immigration is integral to the increased drug activity we’re seeing,” he says, criticizing Democrats for cutting ties with ICE as it tries to intercept drugs and gang members. But that’s not a universal view, even among those who’ve voted for Republicans recently. “It’s definitely racially motivated, especially with immigration being a topic of deporting anyone who looks like me, Hispanic and Mexican,” says Luis Montes, a 24-year-old libertarian from the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs who supported Republican Clay Tippins in the primary but now is backing Abrams because he doesn’t like Kemp’s policies.

Some — like Judy Kilgore, a Cartersville grandmother — are torn. “It’s not a Hispanic thing,” insists Kilgore, who supports Kemp and his focus on gangs but also worries about her half-Black grandchildren and her immigrant friends being judged by the color of their skin. “Young Southern kids who like guns can be inducted into that stuff. It’s about friendships. If you’ve got a bag of apples, you can’t make them good again if you’ve got one bad apple.”

As consensus solutions remain elusive, the raw politics of crime still cut to the core.

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