Calls for criminal justice reform usher sympathetic DA candidates

Joshua Luttrell, his mother, Vicky Luttrell, and niece are pictured during the June 27 We Can't Breath event at the Kansas Statehouse. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Joshua Luttrell used to talk fervently with fellow attorneys about criminal justice reform he had hoped for, but didn’t see, under Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay.

Now, Luttrell will look to unseat Kagay by running on the same platform he hoped his opponent would adopt.

“I ran because I felt somebody had to challenge the idea of what a district attorney is,” Luttrell said. “But I could never have imagined that 2020 would catapult the policies I have been talking about to the forefront of our national conversation.”

The killing by police and subsequent lack of justice for innocent Black men and women, like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, has led to calls for significant change to the criminal justice system. In northeast Kansas that has translated into a new era of district attorney candidates nominated on reform platforms.

Luttrell, a Democrat, said his proposed policies include ending mass incarceration, focus on rehabilitation for nonviolent offenders, and refocusing resources to better engage the community.

“We do not have to treat this process like it’s a machine that pulls people in and spits people out,” Luttrell said. “There is this idea that progressive DA policies are soft on crime, but that isn’t true. The policies are smart on crime.”

Kagay, a Republican, said he already has begun to address many of those issues during his tenure as district attorney. He touted his creation of a community engagement director position and said his focus is always on rehabilitating offenders.

“Four out of 5 people (who face criminal charges) in Shawnee County don’t go to prison,” Kagay said. “Whether it’s added focus on mental health or drug treatments, it’s a problem, and one I’m addressing.”

Luttrell isn’t the only Democrat fighting to defeat a Republican incumbent in the general election. Zach Thomas, the nominee in Johnson County, will face Republican incumbent Steve Howe in November.

Luttrell and Thomas hope to join two other Democratic district attorneys in office in northeast Kansas — Suzanne Valdez, of Douglas County, and Mark Dupree in Wyandotte County, neither of whom had Republican candidates file against them.

Dupree, an incumbent and the only Black district attorney in Kansas, narrowly defeated moderate challenger Kristiane Bryant in the primary election.

He has been heavily criticized, including a cutting editorial in the Kansas City Star with several sources accusing him of sloppy work, but he has repeatedly waived those off as pushback for the changes he is making.

Dupree touted the Conviction Integrity Unit, which reviews cases of those who believe they have been wrongfully convicted, as his chief accomplishment while in office. He established the unit after Lamonte McIntyre was freed from prison after serving 23 years for a crime he did not commit.

Dupree took office after defeating then-Wyandotte County District Attorney Jerome Gorman in 2016.

He also serves on the recently formed governor’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice. The commission is charged with studying issues of race, equity and justice and making recommendations to the governor, Legislature and local governments.

Suzanne Valdez defeated incumbent Charles Branson and progressive candidate Cooper Overstreet for Douglas County district attorney. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

“I believe that the time and opportunity is ripe and ready to make some real changes, to move from the conversation into actual conduct,” Dupree said during the inaugural commission meeting in July. “We can make some real change with all these people behind us.”

In Douglas County, Suzanne Valdez defeated incumbent Charles Branson, first elected in 2004, as well as Cooper Overstreet.

Both Valdez and Overstreet finished above the more moderate Branson, who faced opposition for the first time since he was elected. Branson faced criticism for continuing to employ and defend his assistant, Amy McGowan, despite her record of putting innocent men behind bars.

“People would say anybody but Branson. That shows how ready for change people are,” Valdez said. “I always hesitate to say we woke up this year, but people are now looking and saying, ‘Are we where we need to be with criminal justice?’ ”

Valdez, a professor at the University of Kansas School of Law, entered the race in April. Unlike Overstreet, who labeled himself as a progressive candidate, Valdez ran her campaign calling for smart, not progressive, reform.

She offered abolishing bail, something many progressive district attorney campaigns have pushed, as an example. While Valdez feels that is an unreasonable promise — and constitutionally complicated — she does want to change how bail is assigned.

Valdez said she avoided the term “progressive” because she did not feel Overstreet’s ethics and ideas overlapped enough with hers to be in the same camp, but she promised change would come with her in office.

“This campaign made me think a lot about what it means to be progressive, but also what it means to be stuck, making no progress at all,” Valdez said. “We’ve been stuck far too long. People have had enough.”

This story has been corrected to reflect that Luttrell voiced concerns with Kagay to other attorneys, rather than directly to the district attorney.