The late Kenneth Thompson held the job of Brooklyn district attorney for only three years, but some of his legacy, which the New York Times calls “a more selective, less reflexively law-and-order approach to prosecution, may endure. He arrived in the district attorney’s office amid slow but steady change in how prosecutors view their role in the criminal justice system, a shift that Thompson both embraced and advanced.
District attorneys wield enormous power and it is frequently overlooked or is cloaked in a kind of institutional invisibility. They decide not only whom to prosecute, but also how aggressively to prosecute, and play a crucial role in determining what sentences some defendants will eventually receive. “There’s not really a full understanding of the important role that prosecutors play in the system and the scope of their powers,” said Meg Reiss of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “But prosecutors have the utmost discretion in the process, and the repercussions of that discretion extend beyond individual cases into families and communities.” Thompson established policies that sought to mitigate the damaging effects of overprosecution. Besides halting prosecution of many low-level marijuana cases, he started a program called Begin Again, which allowed residents with summonses and warrants for many small offenses to clear their names easily.