Most people probably cannot name the person they elected into office that controls their local criminal justice system, even if they support criminal justice reform. Hint: she’s a prosecutor. Yet, we’re starting to hear more and more about these influential political actors. The ACLU has said, “Prosecutors are the most powerful, unaccountable and least transparent actors in the criminal justice system.” To help prosecutors wield that power responsibly, Daylight Justice is rolling out new workshops for prosecutors on reducing bias--especially in charging decisions and plea negotiations--and engaging communities through the practices of listening, respect and trust-building.
The ACLU has its own campaign to increase the transparency of the office and encourage voters to understand who they elect into such powerful positions. The campaign is “Meet Your DA” and it includes a cool, interactive website where you can look up the prosecutor that you voted for and see how his views compare to yours about the death penalty, the three-strikes or similar laws, juvenile offenders, and other timely and important topics.
We’ve also seen increased attention to prosecutors who are “reformed-minded” and take on issues such as bail-reform, refusal to charge low-level drug offenses and diversion programs instead of harsh sentences for drug addicts and the mentally ill. In 2016, Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx (pictured) was elected to lead the second-largest prosecutor’s office in the country. Since then she has ceased prosecuting misdemeanor driver's license offenses that are based on failure to pay tickets or fines and she raised the threshold to prosecute retail thefts as felonies from $300 to $1000.
In Dallas, the hotly contested Democratic primary for the district attorney’s race is still undecided. This, despite significant attention to the race given by social justice advocate and popular social media personality, Shaun King. He started a criminal justice PAC and raised over $100,000 in a couple of weeks to support Elizabeth Frizell, his pick for the Democratic contender. She is currently trailing by 516 votes.
Will these types of prosecutors make a difference? A new book by Fordham law professor John Pfaff would argue yes. In Locked In, Pfaff argues that prosecutors rather than the War on Drugs or mandatory minimums and other harsh sentencing schemes have fueled the meteoric rise of incarceration rates in the last 30 years. As political creatures, prosecutors get political rewards for putting people in prison and almost unlimited power to do so. Adam Gopnik offers an interesting review of the new book in The New Yorker.
Whether through new leadership, new educational tools and trainings, or a new level of responsiveness to their communities, we at Daylight Justice are hoping this years brings increased fairness and justice in prosecution offices nationwide.