Critic Cites ‘Overzealous’ Prosecutors for Packed Prisons

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“Overzealous prosecutors are playing an underappreciated role” in the nation’s mass incarceration, “because they’re the ones who have the power to hand out these huge penalties and they’re wielding that power more and more. They’re even being rewarded for using their power in this way,” Emily Bazelon, author of the new book “Charged,” tells Vox.com. The rise of mandatory minimum sentences in recent decades turns “the punishment into the charge,” Bazelon argues. She says prosecutors use the leverage they have from invoking mandatory minimum terms “to induce more and more plea bargains,” noting that in many states, plea bargains account for 95 percent of convictions.

In Bazelon’s view, prosecutors are “both cloaked in the authority of law enforcement and responding to political pressures at the same time. Traditionally, being a prosecutor or DA [district attorney] has meant that you run for election by being as ‘tough on crime’ as possible. You brag about your high conviction rate. You point to the high-profile murder case in which you got the death penalty. For years in America, you couldn’t lose if you did those things.” She notes that in some areas, voters are electing prosecutors who say, “I’m going to decline prosecuting all this low-level nonsense. I want to concentrate my resources on putting people who committed murder in prison, and in solving homicides.” She notes that only 60 percent of murders nationally are solved by police.

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