The Suburbs Aren’t Scared of Criminal Justice Reform

Progressive prosecutors are proving it’s possible to win over suburban enclaves.

Steve Descano holding a microphone on a stage in front of an American flag.
Steve Descano speaks at an event at the Center for American Progress in D.C. on Dec. 17. Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Willie Horton ad that successfully tanked Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign worked because it played on “every suburban mother’s greatest fear,” according to its creator. The infamous ad handed politicians a reliable strategy for winning in swingable suburbs: manipulate fear of violent crime.

For decades, the suburbs have existed in the American political imagination as a centrist bulwark, where voters concerned above all with property values and schools shy away from systemic reform. But these voters are proving that the caricature of small-minded, cautious suburbanites could be out of date, especially when it comes to criminal justice and crime. In 2019, progressive prosecutors swept Democratic primary and general elections in the prosperous suburbs of northern Virginia: Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties as well as the city of Arlington. Amid a blue wave in the state, promises to reduce cash bail, stop seeking the death penalty, and decriminalize marijuana possession won easily. The prosecutors’ elections in northern Virginia represent the most significant electoral victory for the reform prosecutor movement outside of big cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, or New York.

“I really do think the next frontier of criminal justice reform runs through the suburbs,” said Steve Descano, newly inaugurated commonwealth’s attorney for Fairfax County, who hopes his success serves as a model to suburbs around the country: “The response reformers get is, ‘Oh, well, X county isn’t like New York or Chicago.’ I want them to be able to say, ‘Well, we are like Fairfax County, and look what they did.’ ”

Descano unseated Raymond Morrogh, a 12-year incumbent with a more traditional approach to the job, in a heated Democratic primary fight. Descano promised to do away with cash bail, the death penalty, and marijuana possession charges. Jonathan Fahey, Descano’s independent opponent in the general election, backed some mild reforms, like offering alternatives to incarceration, but he made fighting MS-13 gangs a central part of his platform. Fahey stressed his long career as a federal prosecutor and argued Descano would not have a “constructive relationship” with law enforcement. “Steve Descano’s programs, lack of experience and philosophy,” Fahey said, “will all make Fairfax County less safe.” Fahey got nods from Morrogh, retiring prosecutors in neighboring Arlington and Prince William County, as well as the local Republican Party and police union. Descano received endorsements from state Democratic heavyweights, including former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, and a large donation from a George Soros–funded PAC that supports progressive prosecutor candidates across the country.

Descano quickly put his platform into action. He immediately stopped prosecuting personal marijuana possession, launched a probe into the fatal shooting of an unarmed motorist by federal law enforcement agents, and joined with local DAs to call for the Virginia legislature to abolish the death penalty.

Descano’s victory amid the northern Virginia wave came two years after a more bare-knuckled Willie Horton strategy failed statewide: Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie lost after running gruesome ads warning MS-13 would flood the state if Democrat Ralph Northam won. Experts see the failure of tough-on-crime politics in the Virginia suburbs as a national bellwether. “There are some who are fanning the flames, but communities aren’t buying it,” said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the nonprofit Fair and Just Prosecution, which advises left-leaning candidates for district attorney around the country. “There’s a new normal that’s starting to form among voters and elected prosecutors.” Indeed, a 2018 Gallup poll found Americans’ fear of crime is at its lowest in more than a decade.

The electoral success of criminal justice reform in northern Virginia is the result of decadeslong demographic trends and social pressures that can be found in suburbs around the country, experts and prosecutors said. Suburbs have seen explosive population growth and economic expansion in recent decades, leading to denser, more diverse electorates. Fairfax County, with its connections to cosmopolitan D.C. and the federal bureaucracy, has experienced an influx of highly educated immigrants as well. Descano believes he won because of these changes. “As an area gets more diverse and densely populated, there is more interaction with neighbors who don’t have the same life experience that you have,” he said.

Suburbs have also had to contend with public health challenges that were once seen as “urban” problems. Over the course of the past decade, CDC data shows suburbs went from experiencing lower rates of overdose deaths than rural and urban communities to suffering from higher rates of drug death than either cities or the country. “The opioid issue in particular was an incredible eye-opener. Most people have a friend, a family member, a neighbor, someone they know has had an addiction problem or lost someone close to them,” said Descano. “People who live in the suburbs now start to see that these aren’t issues they can just move away from.”

The rise of the mass shooting, which frequently occurs in suburbs, as the quintessential American horror could have also sapped the effectiveness of more traditional right-wing scare tactics by displacing fears of a criminal underclass with the plague of poorly regulated guns and hate-fueled ideologies. Descano acknowledged a certain symbolic importance to the issue in his community, home to the headquarters of the National Rifle Association. “The values of Fairfax County are not the value of the NRA.”

While the politics of crime in the suburbs have shifted, the practice of justice lags behind major cities. A 2019 Vera Institute report found that suburbs have the nation’s highest arrest rates. According to a 2017 study, racial disparities in arrests for quality-of-life violations surged to “extreme” levels as more poor, nonwhite people moved into suburbs. Perhaps it’s not surprising that a number of the incidents that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement—the deaths of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, for instance—occurred in suburbs, not inner cities.

Descano says that’s due to the fact that it’s harder to push through sweeping reform when suburban counties are split between municipal governments that don’t necessarily coordinate on policy and may not have the resources for initiatives like conviction integrity units. “You can wrap your head around reforming a single big city’s DA office” or police department, Descano said. Big cities may be better able to recruit more progressive, sophisticated criminal justice professionals as well, said Rebecca Neusteter, co-author of the Vera Institute report.

Recent history could also pose an obstacle for progressives. “Suburbs have been used to segregate,” said Andrea Boyles, professor of criminal justice at Lindenwood University outside St. Louis and author of the book Race, Place, and Suburban Policing: Too Close for Comfort. Suburbs aren’t merely places with single-family homes and good public schools: As products of midcentury white flight, they “represent safety as a predominantly white, affluent space. Suburbs were created in the first place so that white populations could live separately from poor, minority populations but not out of reach of the amenities of the city.”

Descano and his cohort are betting that suburbs have outgrown the segregationist impulse that birthed such places. During the campaign, he found Fairfax County was just too big and diverse to remain in stasis. “There were days I started on a horse farm, had lunch at a strip mall, went to a mosque, went to a high-rise, went to a metro station. There’s an incredible diversity of experiences,” he said, which the voters themselves recognized, meaning that attempts to scare constituents away from reform fell short. “People have seen the county grow up and change, and they see that as a benefit. The old, broad, superficial message of fear doesn’t work anymore.”