Want to Change the System? Elect a Better Prosecutor


Changes in the behavior of police and prosecutors are as critical to reducing U.S. jail and prison populations as legislative changes, the American Society of Criminology (ASC) was told yesterday.

“If you care about justice reform, pay attention to who is going to be your District Attorney,” said Marie Gottschalk of the University of Pennsylvania.

Speaking at the ASC's annual convention in Washington, DC, Gottschalk said that prosecutorial elections in many jurisdictions around the nation are becoming “hot” spots in the growing debate over crime and punishment.

Such elections matter because, even without the far-reaching changes to sentencing guidelines and correctional policies that some reformers have called for, there's already a “lot of discretion” in the system to make a significant impact, she said.

Yet except for a few well-publicized reform prosecutors, such as Milwaukee DA John Chisholm , “people in the front lines are afraid to step outside” their comfort zone, said Gottschalk.

Similarly, Daniel Nagin of Carnegie Mellon University argued that police can make a huge impact on the number of people sent to jail just by arresting fewer people for misdemeanors and petty crimes.

The nation's jail population has increased five-fold over the last three decades —a largely unnoticed development that coincides with the rise of so-called “broken windows” policing, targeted at relatively minor quality-of-life offenses on the theory that it will deter more serious crimes—a theory that isn't backed up by evidence, Nagin said.

Instead, he continued, “police need to back off making arrests for minor infractions” and focus their efforts on at-risk neighborhoods or dangerous individuals through proactive enforcement strategies, like “closing down problem bars, or getting guns off the street,” that can actually prevent crime.

The two criminologists have attracted widespread attention for their work questioning the premises of many conventional approaches to reform. Gottschalk is the author of “Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics” (2014). Nagin is co-author with Cynthia Lum of a landmark essay called “Reinventing American Policing,” to be published in a forthcoming volume of studies outlining the shape of a “humane justice system.”

They were joined in the discussion by Vincent Schiraldi, who recently left his post as criminal justice advisor in the New York City Mayor's office to become a senior fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Schiraldi pushed the points made by his co-panelists one step further by saying that serious reforms are unlikely unless politicians are forced to acknowledge their responsibility for changing the “disturbingly engrained” abusive conditions in the nation's prisons and jails.

“Rikers (the troubled detention facility in New York City) is just 15 minutes from City Hall, but the (former) Bloomberg administration had no idea what was going on there,” said Schiraldi, who served in that administration as Probation Commissioner.

Gottschalk agreed that focusing the attention of political leaders on the broken parts of the criminal justice system was essential.

But “the obsessive pursuit” of even laudable goals like cutting prison costs, and reducing recidivism “won't sustain the political momentum for change,” she said. “A much wider social movement is needed.”

Such a moment, she argued, had to go beyond the current critique about racial inequity to tackle the roots of America's prison crisis.

“The U.S. would still have a carceral crisis if every African American were let out of prison today ” or the war on drugs was over, she said, noting that immigration detentions and tough policies towards sex offenders were driving up incarceration numbers —while locking individuals of all demographic groups up in “degrading conditions.”

Moreover, fixing the system shouldn't depend on waiting for all the scientific “evidence” justifying policy changes to come in, she said.

“At the end of the day, it's going to be a debate about the moral principles around which we should (create) criminal justice reform,” she said.

Stephen Handelman is Editor of the Crime Report. He welcomes your comments.

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