« US Sentencing Commission releases big new report on "Mandatory Minimum Penalties for Federal Sex Offenses" | Main | "The Metal Eye: Ethical Regulation of the State’s Use of Surveillance Technology and Artificial Intelligence to Observe Humans in Confinement" »

January 2, 2019

Noting the notable "new crop of reform-minded prosecutors"

Though I do not expect a new wave of progressive prosecutors to radically change American criminal justice system, I do hope they can and will be important contributor to whole new conceptions of how to approach crime and punishment in the USA.  This new AP piece talks about some of the notable new folks taking office this year, and here are excerpts:

To get elected as a district attorney, sounding tough on crime used to be the most effective campaign strategy. But in recent years, district attorneys have been winning elections by sounding big on reform.

Next month, at least eight new reform-minded prosecutors will take office in cities around the country after winning their local elections by promising to be more compassionate toward drug addicts and more evenhanded in the treatment of minorities. Some won their races against long odds and deeply entrenched tough-on-crime attitudes.

In Chesterfield County, Virginia, a Democratic defense attorney who promised to eliminate cash bonds for nonviolent offenders won a traditionally conservative district held by a Republican for 30 years.

In Massachusetts, a lawyer who pledged to stop prosecuting a list of more than a dozen nonviolent crimes became the first African-American woman to win the district attorney’s office in Suffolk County, a district that includes Boston.

And in Dallas County, Texas, former Judge John Creuzot won after promising to reduce incarceration rates by 15 percent to 20 percent and to treat drug crimes as a public health issue. “Justice is HEART work” was part of his campaign slogan.

For decades, that kind of mantra by someone running for district attorney would have been seen as soft on crime and a turnoff for many voters. But a shift began in some communities several years ago when candidates began tapping into public frustration over high incarceration rates, disparate treatment of minorities, and the decades-old war on drugs....

This new crop of prosecuting attorneys is facing resistance to proposals for sweeping reforms, mainly from police and prosecutors in their own offices who are accustomed to decades-old policies of locking up defendants as long as possible....

Rachael Rollins, who won the District Attorney’s seat in Boston, raised the ire of everyone from police to retail store owners when she promised to stop prosecuting crimes such as shoplifting, resisting arrest, larceny under $250, drug possession and trespassing. She pledged to dismiss the cases or require offenders to do community service or complete education programs. “Accountability does not necessarily have to equal incarceration,” Rollins said. “There are many different tools we can use to hold people accountable.”

Larry Krasner, a civil rights attorney and public defender in Philadelphia, won a longshot bid for the District Attorney’s office in 2017. During his first year in office, Krasner has let go about 30 assistant prosecutors — 10 percent of the 300 lawyers in his office — and made it mandatory that he personally has to approve any plea deal that calls for more than 15 to 30 years in prison.

One of the challenges he’s faced and the newly elected DAs will likely face is an institutionalized belief that prosecutors should always seek the most serious charge and longest sentence possible. “I think resistance comes in many forms,” Krasner said. “There’s definitely a resistance that comes from the court system itself.”

Many of the new prosecutors have pledged to treat drug cases less like crimes and more like a public health problem. Scott Miles, a longtime defense attorney, won the Commonwealth’s Attorney job in Chesterfield County, just south of Richmond, Virginia, after promising to reduce felony drug offenses to misdemeanors in simple possession cases. Miles promised to “replace our outdated war-on-drugs approach to addiction.”

Kevin Carroll, president of the Chesterfield Fraternal Order of Police, said he is concerned that Miles will go too easy on drug offenders who often commit other crimes to support their habit. “If you’re not going to get in trouble for it, what’s the fear?” he said. “The truth of the matter is, unfortunately, for a lot of the people who are addicted to drugs, their ability to understand the difference between right and wrong is compromised. The fact is they’ll do what they need to do to get the drugs, and if they have to steal, they’ll steal.”

Lucy Lang, executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the new batch of reform-minded prosecutors represents a shift in the public’s attitude toward the criminal justice system. “It’s a little hard to say whether this reflects a massive sea change,” Lang said. “But I do think that this reflects an increase in awareness on the public’s part of the civil rights crisis we have found ourselves in as a result of overpolicing and mass incarceration over the past 50 years.”

January 2, 2019 at 01:23 PM | Permalink

Comments

I think the actual election of reform-minded prosecutors is an incredible development.

But, alas, we already see pushback:

The National Police Association has filed an ethics complaint against Rachael Rollins (the new DA in Boston), even though she hasn't even taken office yet. It's based on the fact that she stated she wanted to stop prosecuting some crimes (in other words, she was transparent in her campaign).

In St. Louis county, the attorneys in the prosecutors office want to unionize, and, most appallingly, want to be represented by the police union.

Reform never comes easy. It’s especially difficult when there are entrenched powers whose livelihood depends on the status quo.

Posted by: A DC Wonk | Jan 2, 2019 3:47:38 PM

What you are saying, A DC Wonk, is why I am not putting too many expectations on the new DA (as well as the fact that there are carceral pressures that come from the left as well as the right and from all sorts of communities).

Posted by: Doug B. | Jan 2, 2019 4:50:59 PM

Interesting that the FOP mouthpiece admits/declares that addicts' ability to distinguish right and wrong is compromised. Inasmuch as that is the cornerstone of the ancient M'naghten Rule, he kind of undermines his own case.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Jan 3, 2019 11:47:04 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB