One Way To Cut Incarceration: Less-Punitive Prosecutors

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On the same day that they narrowly chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in November, voters in Nueces County, Tx., elected Democrat Mark Gonzalez—a Mexican American defense attorney with “NOT GUILTY” tattooed across his chest—as district attorney. Gonzalez had easily defeated the incumbent in the primary in March. “We want to bring back the humanitarian perspective,” Gonzalez tells the Washington Monthly. “There’s a current culture where they think everyone accused is a scumbag, and that is not the case. These guys aren’t all scum. Even if some of them are scum, their moms aren’t. Their dads aren’t. Their brothers and sisters and wives, who most of these guys have, aren’t. So I’ll bring a little bit of humanity to that office.” 

Gonzalez is one of at least ten criminal justice reform candidates who won local races for district attorney, including in Houston, Chicago, and even Birmingham, Al. Several candidates, though not Gonzalez, were backed by the liberal billionaire George Soros. Some owed their victories to incumbent scandals; still, they proved that it’s possible to campaign and win on a promise to be less punitive. Law Prof. John Pfaff of Fordham University says in a new book, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, liberals have been telling and retelling a “Standard Story” about the causes of incarceration: the war on drugs, private prisons, and harsher sentences. Pfaff says the Standard Story is wrong. The threat of having to explain an arrest to one’s friends, family, or boss is incentive enough for most people to follow the rules. “Yet our policies,” Pfaff writes, “get this completely backward.” From 1994 to 2008, as crime was falling, prosecutors grew twice as likely to file felony charges in a given case. That change alone, Pfaff says, explains almost all of the growth in incarceration.


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