Prosecutors can play a key role in prison reform through “legal affirmative action,” say advocates.
They should step up investigations into prison conditions and correctional officers’ misconduct, said Jill Habig, founder and president of the Public Rights Project.
“These investigations can also lead to more systemic recommendations” for reform, she told a webinar hosted by the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution (IIP) at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice Friday.
Stanley Richards, executive vice president of The Fortune Society, said that as the criminal justice system stands, prosecutors fail “to affirm the humanity of everybody who is involved in it.”
“The crime is what people did, not who they are,” Richards explained.
Another speaker, Daryl Atkinson, co-director of Forward Justice, said prosecutors were critical to correctional system reform as well as the larger movement for change in the criminal justice system.
“We need to use every lever at our disposal to try to remedy…the harm the criminal legal system has perpetuated on Black and Brown communities,” he said.
“We need criminal legal affirmative action.”
The panelists outlined many problems they say are embedded in the current criminal justice system.
Habig argued that America’s reliance on criminal prosecution as a means of delivering justice to victims, preventing crime, and rehabilitating offenders has gone too far.
“We must get away from this notion that prosecution improves safety when we know that it impedes safety,” she said.
Becton agreed: “If we can objectify people and put labels on them and put numbers on them, we stop seeing them as people who deserve basic human rights.”
To address the dehumanization of justice-involved individuals, Becton said that her and her colleagues “personally visit” the jails and prisons in her jurisdiction.
What Becton described as an “eye-opening experience,” visiting correctional facilities presents prosecutors with the “opportunity to…get close up to those impacted by the recommendations and actions [they are] making every day.”
Richards commended Becton’s efforts.
“Thank you, DA Becton, because that is affirming humanity in action,” he said.
Following Richards’ comment, Atkinson shifted the conversation to one on systemic racism in the criminal justice system.
Structural racism and white supremacy are “baked into our jurisprudence,” Atkinson argued.
To illustrate this point, Atkinson cited a lawsuit that Forward Justice and four other civil rights groups filed in April against the governor of North Carolina – Roy Cooper (D) – and the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS).
The lawsuit alleged that DPS has failed to adequately protect inmates from the outbreak of COVID-19 and sought the release of people who are vulnerable to the disease.
Atkinson explained that although the judge ordered DPS to improve its COVID-19 response, the legal standards that the petitioners had to meet were “ridiculous.”
When asked whether he was optimistic about the future of criminal justice in America, Atkinson responded, “no.”
“I am not optimistic, and I think COVID-19 has laid bare that we are nowhere near the kind of criminal legal reform kumbaya that we are claiming to be,” he continued.
Atkinson then praised Becton’s reform efforts. He warned, however, that Becton “represents a fraction of the prosecutorial community.”
He also said that some of the reforms being discussed and implemented are “merely shifting deck chairs on the Titanic.”
Despite having bleak predictions for the future of the criminal justice system, the panelists offered several ways in which prosecutors can play a key role in accomplishing reform.
Lang explained that, first, prosecutors must change their common “my job is to handle the case at this time” attitude.
Richards of The Fortune Society argued that “the conditions of confinement shouldn’t be the punishment.”
“The conditions of confinement should as best as possible reflect those of the outside world,” he explained.
Habig also suggested that prosecutors pursue civil rights investigation into jails and prisons, file amicus briefs in civil rights investigations, and advocate for progressive policies (e.g., a ban on private prisons).
Becton said that prosecutors could also push for bail reform, free phone calls for inmates, and improved mental health services in jails and prisons.
Becton added that her office is trying to make a visit to a correctional facility a mandatory part of new prosecutor training.
Both Habig and Becton agreed that for as long as the COVID-19 outbreak lasts, prosecutors should “send fewer people to prison and release as many people as possible as quickly as possible.”
Habig also explained that many “state attorneys general…are also the defense attorney for jail systems and the state’s department of corrections.”
“We should revisit giving prosecutors both of those roles,” she argued
Meanwhile, Atkinson described how “Germany, as part of their reckoning post-World War II, enshrined human dignity into their constitution…They knew they needed to keep that value in front of their face, or else it would be so easy to retreat to their past ways.”
Atkinson argued that the same goes for the U.S.
“The enshrinement of human dignity in our jurisprudence…is so important…Unless we have those reminders, we are just destined to repeat ourselves,” he said.
Lastly, the panelists took time to reflect on the current moment, one defined by “the pandemic, the public lynching of George Floyd,” and the economic recession, as Atkinson put it.
Richards declared, “For all the time I’ve been in this fight, this is the moment I’ve been fighting for.”
Atkinson added, “Let’s do everything we can in this moment because we may not get it again.”
Editor’s Note: For additional information on proposed and ongoing reforms to the criminal justice system, please see The Crime Report’s resource page on “Reforming the System.”
See also: “U.S. Legal System Accused of Abetting Racism” by Michael Gelb, The Crime Report, July 17, 2020
Michael Gelb is a TCR News Intern.