The current focus on big-city “progressive prosecutors” as agents of change has diverted attention from rural communities and small towns across America, where reforms to the justice system are needed just as much—if not more, says a former Utah prosecutor.
“Practitioners and scholars should not forget that reforms that occur in large jurisdictions sometimes do not extend to those suffering injustices in small communities,” warns Maybell Romero, now a law professor at the Northern Illinois University College of Law.
In a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Romero argues that the recent wave of elections of “progressive” prosecutors mostly occurred in large cities. But, the problems of biased policing and inequitable treatment in the courts are, if anything, more acute in rural America.
“Ignoring these rural jurisdictions and populations erases a number of communities of color throughout the United States,” writes Romero.
Romero noted that people of color make up nearly 20 percent of the rural population—a percentage she said has been steadily increasing each year.
To illustrate the impact of the lag in rural justice reform, Romero examined racial inequalities in incarcerated populations in Vermont, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia.
In all those states, African Americans were over-represented in the prison population.
For example, in Mississippi, blacks comprised 37 percent of the general population but 57 percent of the incarcerated population. In Kentucky, they made up 29 percent of the incarcerated but just eight percent of the total.
In West Virginia, minority children were more likely than white children to be arrested, adjudicated, and sent to juvenile detention centers. Children of color were also less likely to be offered an alternative to incarceration than white youth, even after controlling for the crimes they committed.
Romero noted that such continued disparities called into question the entire concept of “progressive” prosecutors.
The phrase emerged in the 2010s, when public confidence in the criminal justice system was low, and has been used to describe individuals who use their prosecutorial powers for reform, whether in fighting for decarceration or increasing police accountability.
Some of the most prominent “progressives” elected over the past decade include Wesley Bell of St. Louis County, Mo.; Rachael Rollins of Boston, Ma.; Larry Krasner of Philadelphia, Pa.; and Kim Foxx of Chicago, Il.
But, the use of “progressive” to describe individuals who participate in a justice system that is riddled with racial inequities is a misnomer, Romero maintains.
Moreover, “this notion is completely cut off not just from rural criminal justice but from those communities of color who exist within them.”
“Prosecutors who serve in the American criminal justice system as presently constituted…have no claims to being progressive or transgressive without, at the very least, actively working to completely dismantle the systems and hierarchies in which they exist,” the paper argued.
Romero contended that the criminal justice system was created to discriminate along socioeconomic and racial lines.
Therefore, “unless they are appearing in court to dismiss any and all prosecutions, [prosecutors] are enforcing the rules of a legal system which is inherently racist and sexist.”
It follows that “even the most reform-minded prosecutors cannot be called ‘progressive’ given these ground rules,” according to Romero.
Nevertheless, the paper said it was important to extend the reforms already underway in large cities to rural areas, especially rural communities of color, by electing more prosecutors who reflect racial and gender diversity.
Romero pointed out that only four percent of elected prosecutors are men of color, and only one percent are women of color.
Romero, who described herself as a woman of color, recalled her stint as a prosecutor in Utah in the 2000s, where she “looked more like—and could relate more readily to the lived experience of a large number of the defendants who appeared in court, rather than my colleagues in my County Attorney’s Office.”
Download the full paper here.
This summary was prepared by TCR News Intern Michael Gelb.