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The 'progressive DA' movement survives the midterms

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

There's a movement that made it through this year's midterm elections despite political attacks - that's the push to support prosecutors who call themselves progressive and try to reduce incarceration by prosecuting fewer people. Many Republican candidates had blamed progressive prosecutors for rising crime. But, as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the movement mostly held its ground.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: It's a bright morning in downtown Seattle a couple of days after the election, and a man squats on the sidewalk outside the county courthouse to smoke a crushed pill off a strip of tinfoil. The fact that he can do this here without fear of prosecution is due in part to policies pioneered by the man whose office is up on the fourth floor - the county prosecuting attorney, Dan Satterberg.

DAN SATTERBERG: Fundamentally, the power that a prosecutor has to make a difference is in prosecutorial discretion - the discretion that we inherently have as separately elected executive branch agencies with finite resources. We can decide what our priorities are.

KASTE: And his priorities do not include charging people for drug possession - something Satterberg sees as doing more harm than good. Washington state courts and the legislature have followed his lead on this in the last few years. And he says now, even if he wanted to prosecute low-level offenders, the post-pandemic surge in violent crime has made that impractical.

SATTERBERG: I'm here to tell you the court is full. If we were ever a path to treatment, we're not now. That goes for people with drug addictions. That goes for people who have just fallen into the wrong crowd or need a little bit of a kick in the butt toward a more positive outcome in their life.

KASTE: He knows people are sometimes frustrated by the disorder they see in the streets, but he says you can't blame social problems on the prosecutor. You need to look at the whole community for solutions. It's an attitude that voters here continue to endorse. Satterberg is retiring, but another progressive prosecutor from his staff has just been elected to succeed him.

MIRIAM KRINSKY: What we saw in 2022 were communities doubling down on the desire for change.

KASTE: Miriam Krinsky runs Fair and Just Prosecution. It's a kind of national club for DAs who identify with the progressive prosecutor philosophy. After this election, that club has grown to about 28 members.

KRINSKY: Leaders who ran on an agenda of wanting to right-size the criminal legal system - of wanting to avoid criminalizing people who are suffering.

JASON JOHNSON: I'd be misleading you if I didn't say that we were, you know, a little disappointed.

KASTE: Jason Johnson is president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, a group opposed to the progressive prosecutors. He acknowledges their ability to get reelected by liberal voters in big cities. But he sees some hope for his side in the fact that Republican Lee Zeldin came close to winning the governor's race in New York with a campaign promise to fire the progressive DA in Manhattan.

JOHNSON: Although he didn't prevail, I think there probably is a message there that, in many parts of New York - that people would like to see more of a traditional approach to criminal justice.

KASTE: And the progressive prosecutors did see some setbacks in 2022 - chief among them, the successful recall of San Francisco's DA, Chesa Boudin, in June. They've also had trouble expanding beyond big cities or other pockets of liberal voters. In Massachusetts' Plymouth County, a progressive challenger failed to unseat longtime DA Tim Cruz. Cruz says his voters are not interested in what he calls turnstile justice.

TIM CRUZ: It's just really dangerous. You know, you have to hold people accountable.

KASTE: Still, even traditional DAs like Cruz have come to share some of this movement's aims.

CRUZ: I am not a progressive DA, but I think that I am progressive. Don't we really all want the same thing? Don't we want to have a just society? Don't we want to make sure that people are held accountable when they do something or they hurt somebody? But at the same time, how do you make sure that the mistakes that they've made don't parlay into something bigger than what they originally were? And how can you help those kids stay out of the system?

KASTE: Beyond political labels, there has been a growing willingness by prosecutors of all political stripes to back the broader goal of reducing America's incarceration rate. And incarceration numbers have been slowly falling. But in Seattle, Satterberg is already thinking about the next round of elections, saying the continuing reelection of these progressive prosecutors is what will determine whether this is a moment or a movement. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JILL SCOTT SONG, "GETTIN' IN THE WAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.