ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The primary elections yesterday were not all about presidential politics there were some state and local contests, too. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the results in a couple of races for big city prosecutors offices are making waves in the national debate over crime and punishment.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Incumbent prosecutors rarely get voted out of office, but that's exactly what happened last night in primary elections in Chicago...
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Back to campaign 2016 - a major upset in the race for Cook County state's attorney. Kim Foxx unseats incumbent Anita Alvarez.
KASTE: ...And in Cleveland, where Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty was also defeated by a challenger. Both incumbents have taken heat for how they handled deadly shootings by police. The Chicago prosecutor was accused of waiting too long to charge the officer who shot Laquan McDonald.
And in Cleveland, there was similar anger when no charges were filed against the officer who killed a 12-year-old boy named Tamir Rice. Now cops are worried that prosecutors will feel more pressure from voters to file charges. Jay McDonald is president of Ohio's Fraternal Order of Police.
JAY MCDONALD: We have a very real concern about, you know, the trend across the country of big pressure to revert the rule of law to satisfy activists.
KASTE: But is this really just a backlash against prosecutors for not charging cops? John Pfaff sees something deeper going on here. He's a law professor at Fordham University who pays special attention to prosecutors, and he says they have a lot to answer for.
JOHN PFAFF: Prosecutors really have driven mass incarceration over the past, especially the past 20 years. As crime has gone down, prisons have gone up. The main force behind that has been increasing aggressiveness by prosecutors. And the only real way to regulate a prosecutor is through elections.
KASTE: Voters seem more skeptical of the lock-them-up approach to crime, and Pfaff sees the results in other recent defeats of incumbent prosecutors in Brooklyn two years ago and in Caddo Parish, La., last fall. He puts last night's defeat of Anita Alvarez in Chicago in that same category.
PFAFF: There was an underlying dissatisfaction with her as just a tough-on-crime DA in a time when toughness doesn't quite have that same political support.
KASTE: With the recent push for reforms in both policing and incarceration, these once-overlooked prosecutor races are becoming real battlegrounds. Last fall, for instance, liberal billionaire George Soros threw hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race in Caddo Parish.
And Pfaff says it makes sense to pay attention to these races because a prosecutor is more likely than a President to have a direct effect on the average person's daily life. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.