Talking With Chris Johnson, the Delaware Attorney General Candidate Fighting Mass Incarceration

Illustration for article titled Talking With Chris Johnson, the Delaware Attorney General Candidate Fighting Mass Incarceration
Photo: Chris Johnson for Attorney General

This piece is part of Splinter’s series The New Guard, where we interview progressive candidates who are running in 2018 midterm races across the country to shake up the Democratic Party establishment.


Delaware is a relative political rarity in 2018: a state controlled, from top to bottom, by the Democratic Party. It’s been this way for years. The last time the state elected a Republican governor was in 1988; the last time it voted for a Republican senator was 1994; and the last time it voted for a Republican congressman was 2008. But by no means should you take this to mean that Delaware is at the forefront of progressive politics; the state’s fortunes are intricately tied to big business, with its corporate-friendly politics a reflection of those relationships.

Delaware has been particularly slow to embrace criminal justice reform. It has some of the highest rates of incarceration and recidivism in the country; a report produced in June by the Prison Policy Initiative showed that 756 people in Delaware were incarcerated for every 100,000, the 17th-highest rate in the country. The state legislature and a long line of governors failed to abolish the death penalty until 2016, when the state Supreme Court took care of it for them. Then there was a renewed push to bring the death penalty back last year after a February prison uprising over conditions at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna resulted in the death of a corrections officer.


In a state with such an entrenched and slow-moving political establishment, what Chris Johnson is proposing is comparatively radical. Johnson, a former deputy legal counsel for the state’s current Governor John Carney and former member of Obama for America’s legal protection team, is running for attorney general on a platform pushing for a clean break from the days of “tough on crime” as the guiding philosophy of prosecutors in Delaware and around the country. Johnson says that his main goals are to end mass incarceration, reduce recidivism rates, and to “effectively” end cash bail. He supports the legalization of marijuana and he says he’ll aggressively fight Trump administration policies that attack marginalized people in the state, particularly immigrants.

Johnson is running against three other Democrats; whoever wins the primary on September 6 is in prime position to win in November, since the lone Republican in the race just dropped out.

I spoke to Johnson about his campaign and where to start when fixing a system that appears fundamentally broken.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why are you running for attorney general of Delaware?

Delaware has an extremely broken criminal justice system...we’re up there [on incarceration rates] with Georgia, Alabama, and the deep red states. For such a long time as an activist, I’ve heard how the system has failed, so I decided to take the ideas I’ve been fighting for and take them statewide. And the AG’s office is the office that has the most responsibility for making sure criminal justice reform actually happens.


You’re running as a reformer. That’s been a buzzword in the past, but it’s starting to gain more traction as people like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Wesley Bell in St. Louis have won races over more conservative, punitive-minded candidates. What does that word—“reform”—mean to you?

Are the poor, the disenfranchised, communities of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and people who have been historically oppressed doing better? Over the past few years, the answer’s no. By “reform,” I mean there’s going to be a system where we treat everyone fairly and no one will be in jail because they’re poor. No one will have a less effective defense because they have a public defender. The system won’t be stacked against them. There will be true fairness...I see criminal justice reform and social justice reform working together holistically.


Delaware has struggled mightily with the opioid crisis. The state has started to combat it more, but what else can be done to stop the crisis?

This has been one of the driving issues in my campaign. We have to look at the historical disparity between how addiction was treated in communities of color and now. Those communities that have been burdened by the drug war, we have to uplift those communities. We need an all hands on deck approach. We need to be looking not only at saving lives but at educating communities, and by saving lives, I mean safe injection sites, educating the community on Narcan training.


In Delaware, we have a severe lack of immediate and long-term treatment. Anything over 30 days is a scarce resource for treatment…over $300 million is spent on the state’s Department of Corrections. If we save there, we can invest in treatment.


As you said before, Delaware has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. How did the problem get so dire?

Historically, Delaware has been a blue state, but it’s been a traditional blue state. We were largely run by corporations, we have the big financial institutions...talking about social justice reform was not a big issue, and being tough on crime was the way to go. We had that in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and now we’re paying for it.


Delaware is a state where Democrats run everything but there’s been a resistance to progressives in the past. What has your experience as a candidate running to the left been?

It’s been very successful. When we started, I wasn’t quite sure. I’ve been involved in criminal justice reform for a while, but I didn’t know if we’d get the same reception statewide as we did in the city of Wilmington. It didn’t matter if we were in Wilmington, or Dover, or Seaford, or Georgetown, people wanted change. Outside of the progressive community this movement is taking shape. There’s more awareness of these issues nationally. We have the Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, we have Locked In, even Orange Is the New Black. Households get that this is a problem.


Delaware sued pharmaceutical companies earlier this year for contributing to the opioid crisis. Do you agree with that move?

I’d say yes, but I don’t believe it’s the solution right now. Suing big pharma is like suing big tobacco. We’re not going to see settlements for over a decade, and we need solutions now. So I support and understand the movement to sue big pharma, but it’s not going to help us right now.


And another thing I’d say is that it’s not just an opioid epidemic. Amphetamine and alcohol are still killing people as well. Statewide, we need to invest in treatment, and that’s going to happen by saving money that we’re wasting on mass incarceration.


You’ve written about how Delaware has to protect its immigrants. In the Trump era, what does that look like to you?

In Delaware, we’ve taken the approach of being reactive. A lot of the raids in Delaware have been on worksites. We should be taking proactive measures to sue the federal government and not just joining other state lawsuits. I want Delaware to be one of the leaders in being proactive against the Trump administration.


Do you think Delaware should take the step of becoming a sanctuary state?

I would hope and wish, but given the governor [Carney, who’s cultivated a reputation for bipartisanship since his days in Congress], I’m not sure. I can tell you, the current leadership does not believe in challenging the federal government. I believe we need to be challenging the federal government. It’s a fight I believe we need to take, but it’s going to take a lot of movement because I don’t think the appetite is [currently] there in the executive branch and the rest of the government.


Regarding Wilmington, which was found last year to be the most dangerous city in the country to be a child: a lot of what I’ve heard from advocates, elected officials in the city and county, and even just regular people I’ve talked to is that there’s a disconnect between the state and city on how to deal with issues like gun violence and poverty. How do you go about mending those ties between the state and its largest city?

I’ve worked in the city of Wilmington and I’ve worked on the state side in the governor’s office. I believe the root of the challenge is making direct state investment into the future of the city. For years it was “that’s the city of Wilmington’s problem.” It’s a Delaware problem.


That was always the disheartening thing. There was so little investment in the anti-violence initiative. We had the Cure Violence program, it was successful in other cities where it had 100% state funding. We had a small budget and no investment at the state level.

I’m going to say, look: You have to put Wilmington first, and the needs of Wilmington have to be addressed. We can’t keep kicking the can down the road.


This isn’t a problem that’s unique to Delaware by any means, but a lot of people, particularly marginalized people, feel like the system can’t be reformed. How can someone like an attorney general, the state’s top prosecutor, go about convincing those people that you’re serious about reform, and that reform can even work?

To give some hope, look at other jurisdictions. We’re way behind. Look at our neighbors like New Jersey, who’s been a leader in bail reform, and New York [City], which has drastically reduced prison population, to the point where Rikers Island is on track to close. New Jersey has done it, New York has done it, Maryland has done it, and Delaware has been left behind.


My life’s work has been committed to criminal justice reform. These aren’t just campaign talking points for me. I’ve been in churches and communities with activists to make these changes. Every policy from my office would be aimed at mass incarceration; at the end of four years the changes will be evident. We’ll not only have safer neighborhoods, we’ll have a lower prison population and a lower recidivism rate.

News editor, Splinter

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