Criminal Justice Reform From the Ground Up

Right wing news outlets have been trying for years to paint billionaire George Soros as the equivalent on the left to the Koch brothers on the right. I always find it amusing. Due to the fact that the millions he spent in 2004 on electing John Kerry – only to see George W. Bush be re-elected – Soros pretty much gave up on funding political campaigns and put most of his efforts into the philanthropic work of his Open Society Foundations.

According to this report from Zachary Mider, Soros is so alarmed by the candidacy of Donald Trump that he is back in the business of funding political campaigns. But the $13 million Mider tracked down pales in comparison to Sheldon Adelson’s $90 million and the Koch brother’s promised $900 million.

All of that is why I was particularly interested in a report from Scott Bland titled, “George Soros’ quiet overhaul of the U.S. justice system.”

The billionaire financier has channeled more than $3 million into seven local district attorney campaigns in six states over the past year — a sum that exceeds the total spent on the 2016 presidential campaign by all but a handful of rival super-donors.

His money has supported African-American and Hispanic candidates for these powerful local roles, all of whom ran on platforms sharing major goals of Soros’, like reducing racial disparities in sentencing and directing some drug offenders to diversion programs instead of to trial. It is by far the most tangible action in a progressive push to find, prepare and finance criminal justice reform-oriented candidates for jobs that have been held by long-time incumbents and serve as pipelines to the federal courts — and it has inspired fury among opponents angry about the outside influence in local elections.

It is no surprise that Soros would have an interest in this. His foundations prioritize work in this area:

The Open Society Foundations advance human rights and justice around the world by advocating equality for minorities and women, supporting international war crimes tribunals, and helping institute national legal reforms to ensure freedom of information, promote sentencing alternatives, and protect the rights of criminal defendants.

Given that Open Society works in this country with people like Lani Guinier and Geoffrey Canada on projects like a Campaign for Black Male Achievement, it is no surprise that this work has brought Soros right to the heart of one of the issues raised by the #BlackLivesMatter movement…the role of state/district attorneys. For example, the Urban Institute published “Ten Reasons to Care About Your Local DA Race.” What it comes down to is data like this:

* 86% of of the national prison population is under the jurisdiction of the states.
* In 2009, 98% of felony convictions in the 75 largest US counties resulted from plea agreements.
* More than 95% of prosecutors who seek reelection win and incumbent prosecutors run unopposed 85% of the time.

In other words, when it comes to the criminal justice system, state/district attorneys are the gate-keepers that no one is paying attention to with all of the focus on police departments. I can’t speak for every jurisdiction in the country, but I can tell you that during my own personal experience in this field, it became very apparent that local police take most of their cues from the district attorney – they wield powerful influence on the entire system.

As one example of what Soros is funding, Bland reports this:

The Florida Safety and Justice group just poured nearly $1.4 million — all of which came from Soros and his 527 group — into a previously low-budget Democratic primary for state attorney in Central Florida before Tuesday’s vote. The group is backing Aramis Ayala, a former public defender and prosecutor, in her campaign against incumbent Jeff Ashton, whose jurisdiction covers over 1.6 million people across two counties in metro Orlando.

Here’s one of their ads:

Making a race like that competitive probably isn’t going to garner a lot of national headlines. But it is exactly how criminal justice reform will happen…from the ground up.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.