In 2020, millions of people took to the streets in a nationwide reckoning with racial injustice and the American carceral system. One year later, we have not delivered on the transformative changes that communities are demanding.
Congress has failed to pass police reform, there has been disappointing backlash against racial equity efforts, and injustice continues to permeate our criminal legal system.
Yet, one bright spot of progress does exist – among local elected prosecutors across the country.
More and more voters in communities large and small, rural and urban, blue and red across the nation are electing a new generation of leaders delivering evidence-based reforms that promote public safety and acknowledge racial disparities.
It’s time for President Joe Biden to fuel this change and support reform-minded prosecution through a Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Prosecution.
Part of the power of this movement comes from its record of success.
In places that have seen the impact of prosecution reform, voters overwhelmingly reelected their prosecutors even in the face of massive expenditures on misinformation campaigns from police unions opposed to reform.
Last year, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx was reelected in Chicago, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner won a second term in the city of St. Louis with 74 percent of the vote, District Attorney Mark Dupree earned another term in Kansas City, Kan.,, and State Attorney Andrew Warren was given four more years in Tampa, Fla..
With each election cycle, the reform-minded prosecutor movement grows larger and stronger.
In 2021, Alvin Bragg was elected as Manhattan’s District Attorney after promising to end prosecution of low-level offenses and invest in restorative justice programs. In Norfolk, Va., Ramin Fatehi was elected Commonwealth’s Attorney on a platform of abolishing cash bail and establishing conviction review.
And as we welcome 2022, reform-minded prosecutors represent around 20 percent of Americans, and are responding to calls for meaningful change in the criminal legal system.
These bold leaders are turning the tide on the dismal record of prosecuting officers who have unjustly killed people, implementing practices to fortify past as well as future police accountability.
Los Angeles DA George Gascón created an independent panel to review use-of-force cases his predecessors opted not to prosecute; Travis County, Texas DA José Garza and Westchester County, N.Y. DA Mimi Rocah reopened past police misconduct and use-of-force cases; Wasco County, Ore. DA Matt Ellis initiated an independent investigation of hundreds of cases involving an officer disciplined for lying; and Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Monique Worrell created a database to prevent untrustworthy officers from testifying.
Voters have also recognized that mass incarceration has wasted billions in taxpayer dollars without making us safer – in fact, longer sentences may actually lead to more crime.
Yet, one in seven people in prison is serving life with parole, life without parole, or a de facto life sentence of 50 years or more. That’s why leaders like Multnomah County, Ore. District Attorney Mike Schmidt and Colorado’s 1st Judicial District Attorney Alexis King have established units that look at both innocence claims and past extreme sentences that no longer benefit public safety.
And while we must revisit decades-long sentences, addressing misdemeanors, which make up more than 80 percent of all criminal cases, is also critical. Recent research on the Suffolk County, Mass. District Attorney’s office and DA Rachael Rollins’ policies found that non-prosecution of low-level offenses can decrease future criminal activity.
Many reform-minded prosecutors are following her lead in ending the prosecution of certain misdemeanors and reallocating resources to address more serious crimes.
Washtenaw County, Michigan Prosecutor Eli Savit has implemented groundbreaking policies that end the charging of consensual sex work, possession of buprenorphine and methadone, and contraband cases that arise from non-public safety traffic stops.
In Georgia’s Western Judicial Circuit, District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez ended prosecution of simple possession of marijuana. These policies keep people from becoming entangled in the criminal legal system and experiencing collateral consequences like barriers to employment, education and housing.
This is just a sample of the progress the newest reform-minded prosecutors have made over the past year.
Now, President Joe Biden’s leadership is needed to learn from and expand on these successes in the 2,000 local prosecutor’s offices across the country. A Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Prosecution would catalyze innovation in the criminal legal system nationwide and chart a path to greater justice and equity in all communities.
That’s why it’s backed by over 100 prosecution and law enforcement leaders and survivors of crime and victim assistance professionals.
There is much more work to be done to achieve a justice system that truly lives up to its name.
As we usher in 2022, inspiring reform-minded prosecutors will continue to advance a more equitable and just criminal legal system.
We hope the Biden Administration will provide support for this work in the year to come and that communities will continue to pay attention to their local prosecutors and grow this movement as it propels meaningful and lasting change.
Miriam Aroni Krinsky is the Executive Director of Fair and Just Prosecution and a former federal prosecutor.