RICHMOND, Va. -- To get elected as a district attorney, sounding tough on crime used to be the most effective campaign strategy. But in recent years, district attorneys have been winning elections by sounding big on reform.
Next month, at least eight new reform-minded prosecutors will take office in cities around the country after winning their local elections by promising to be more compassionate toward drug addicts and more evenhanded in the treatment of minorities.
Some won their races against long odds and deeply entrenched tough-on-crime attitudes.
In Chesterfield County, Virginia, a Democratic defense attorney who promised to eliminate cash bonds for nonviolent offenders won a traditionally conservative district held by a Republican for 30 years.
In Massachusetts, a lawyer who pledged to stop prosecuting a list of more than a dozen nonviolent crimes became the first African-American woman to win the district attorney's office in Suffolk County, a district that includes Boston.
And in Dallas County, Texas, former Judge John Creuzot won after promising to reduce incarceration rates by 15 percent to 20 percent and to treat drug crimes as a public health issue. "Justice is HEART work" was part of his campaign slogan.
For decades, that kind of mantra by someone running for district attorney would have been seen as soft on crime and a turnoff for many voters.
But a shift began in some communities several years ago when candidates began tapping into public frustration over high incarceration rates, disparate treatment of minorities, and the decades-old war on drugs.
"In some ways, there's just been a gap in accountability between what elected prosecutors have been doing and what the electorate wants," said Taylor Pendergrass, senior strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union's Campaign for Smart Justice.
Wesley Bell, a city councilor in Ferguson, Missouri, won a seat as prosecuting attorney of St. Louis County after he promised to eliminate cash bail for nonviolent offenders and to increase the use of programs that allow defendants to avoid jail time by paying restitution, doing community service, or completing a treatment program.
Bell, the first African-American ever elected to the position, defeated fellow Democrat Robert McCulloch, who had held the seat for 28 years, but angered some voters for his handling of a grand jury investigation into the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. The grand jury did not bring charges against the police officer who shot Brown, prompting riots in Ferguson in 2014.
"For years, the average citizen didn't pay attention to DA and prosecutor races — these weren't the sexy races," Bell said. "But there's been an increased awareness because of the work of a lot of good people."
This new crop of prosecuting attorneys is facing resistance to proposals for sweeping reforms, mainly from police and prosecutors in their own offices who are accustomed to decades-old policies of locking up defendants as long as possible.
Assistant prosecutors and investigators in Bell's office voted on Dec. 17 to join the St. Louis police union.
Rachael Rollins, who won the District Attorney's seat in Boston, raised the ire of everyone from police to retail store owners when she promised to stop prosecuting crimes such as shoplifting, resisting arrest, larceny under $250, drug possession and trespassing. She pledged to dismiss the cases or require offenders to do community service or complete education programs.
"Accountability does not necessarily have to equal incarceration," Rollins said. "There are many different tools we can use to hold people accountable."
Larry Krasner, a civil rights attorney and public defender in Philadelphia, won a longshot bid for the District Attorney's office in 2017.
During his first year in office, Krasner has let go about 30 assistant prosecutors — 10 percent of the 300 lawyers in his office — and made it mandatory that he personally has to approve any plea deal that calls for more than 15 to 30 years in prison.
One of the challenges he's faced and the newly elected DAs will likely face is an institutionalized belief that prosecutors should always seek the most serious charge and longest sentence possible.
"I think resistance comes in many forms," Krasner said. "There's definitely a resistance that comes from the court system itself."
Many of the new prosecutors have pledged to treat drug cases less like crimes and more like a public health problem.
Scott Miles, a longtime defense attorney, won the Commonwealth's Attorney job in Chesterfield County, just south of Richmond, Virginia, after promising to reduce felony drug offenses to misdemeanors in simple possession cases. Miles promised to "replace our outdated war-on-drugs approach to addiction."
Kevin Carroll, president of the Chesterfield Fraternal Order of Police, said he is concerned that Miles will go too easy on drug offenders who often commit other crimes to support their habit.
"If you're not going to get in trouble for it, what's the fear?" he said.
"The truth of the matter is, unfortunately, for a lot of the people who are addicted to drugs, their ability to understand the difference between right and wrong is compromised. The fact is they'll do what they need to do to get the drugs, and if they have to steal, they'll steal."
Lucy Lang, executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the new batch of reform-minded prosecutors represents a shift in the public's attitude toward the criminal justice system.
"It's a little hard to say whether this reflects a massive sea change," Lang said.
"But I do think that this reflects an increase in awareness on the public's part of the civil rights crisis we have found ourselves in as a result of overpolicing and mass incarceration over the past 50 years."