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May 5, 2015

"What can one prosecutor do about the mass incarceration of African-Americans?"

The question in the title of this post is the subheadline of this lengthy and timely New Yorker article authored by Jeffrey Toobin.  For many reasons (as perhaps the highlights below suggest), the full article is a must-read:

Like many people in the criminal-justice system, John Chisholm, the District Attorney in Milwaukee County, has been concerned for a long time about the racial imbalance in American prisons.  The issue is especially salient in Wisconsin, where African-Americans constitute only six per cent of the population but thirty-seven per cent of those in state prison. According to a study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, as of 2010 thirteen per cent of the state’s African-American men of working age were behind bars — nearly double the national average, of 6.7 per cent.  The figures were especially stark for Milwaukee County, where more than half of African-American men in their thirties had served time in state prison.  How, Chisholm wondered, did the work of his own office contribute to these numbers?  Could a D.A. do anything to change them?

The recent spate of deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of police officers has brought renewed attention to racial inequality in criminal justice, but in the U.S. legal system prosecutors may wield even more power than cops.  Prosecutors decide whether to bring a case or drop charges against a defendant; charge a misdemeanor or a felony; demand a prison sentence or accept probation.  Most cases are resolved through plea bargains, where prosecutors, not judges, negotiate whether and for how long a defendant goes to prison.  And prosecutors make these judgments almost entirely outside public scrutiny.

Chisholm decided to let independent researchers examine how he used his prosecutorial discretion.  In 2007, when he took office, the Vera Institute of Justice, a research and policy group based in New York City, had just begun studying the racial implications of the work of the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office.  Over several years, Chisholm allowed the researchers to question his staff members and look at their files. The conclusions were disturbing.  According to the Vera study, prosecutors in Milwaukee declined to prosecute forty-one per cent of whites arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia, compared with twenty-seven per cent of blacks; in cases involving prostitution, black female defendants were likelier to be charged than white defendants; in cases that involved resisting or obstructing an officer, most of the defendants charged were black (seventy-seven per cent), male (seventy-nine per cent), and already in custody (eighty per cent of blacks versus sixty-six per cent of whites).

Chisholm decided that his office would undertake initiatives to try to send fewer people to prison while maintaining public safety.  “For a long time, prosecutors have defined themselves through conviction rates and winning the big cases with the big sentences,” Nicholas Turner, the president of the Vera Institute, told me.  “But the evidence is certainly tipping that the attainment of safety and justice requires more than just putting people in prison for a long time.  Prosecutors have to redefine their proper role in a new era.  Chisholm stuck his neck out there and started saying that prosecutors should also be judged by their success in reducing mass incarceration and achieving racial equality.” Chisholm’s efforts have drawn attention around the country....

Chisholm reflects a growing national sentiment that the criminal-justice system has failed African-Americans.  The events in Baltimore last week drew, at least in part, on a sense there that black people have paid an undue price for the crackdown on crime. Since 1980, Maryland’s prison population has tripled, to about twenty-one thousand, and, as in Wisconsin, there is a distressing racial disparity among inmates. The population of Maryland is about thirty per cent black; the prisons and local jails are more than seventy per cent black....

Chisholm decided to move to what he calls an evidence-driven public-health model. “What’s the most effective way to keep a community healthy?” he asked. “You protect people in the first place.  But then what do you do with the people who are arrested?” There are two basic models of prosecutorial philosophy.  “In one, you are a case processor,” he said.  “You take what is brought to you by law-enforcement agencies, and you move those cases fairly and efficiently through the system.  But if you want to make a difference you have to do more than process cases.”

So Chisholm began stationing prosecutors in neighborhoods around Milwaukee.  “If people view prosecutors as just the guys in the courthouse, who are concerned only with getting convictions, then you are creating a barrier,” he said.  He and his team started asking themselves in every instance why they were bringing that case.  “In those that were seen as minor, it was the least experienced people who were deciding whether to bring them.  And these people saw that we had generally brought those cases in the past, so they went ahead with them again. But we started to ask, ‘Why are we charging these people with crimes at all?’ ”

May 5, 2015 at 05:44 PM | Permalink

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Comments

DA's could be held liable for not abiding by their Oath of Office. Other DA's could report them. Stop the benefits that attract the DA's to not honor their Oath of Office and just plan penalize a false prosecution!

Posted by: LC in Texas | May 6, 2015 3:14:52 PM

Mass incarceration is best understood by church goers at Catholic churches on Sunday.

Posted by: Liberty1st | May 6, 2015 10:34:36 PM

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