The issue of mass incarceration is well-documented, and in some states, at least, local laws are starting to catch up. But one area of the justice system where progress has been much slower is the election of local district attorneys, who remain overwhelmingly white and tend to be conservative in their upholding of regressive and outdated laws.
Even in blue cities like Philadelphia and Los Angeles, progressives have criticized DAs for decades for sticking to conservative tough-on-crime, "lock 'em up" tactics. But 2018 could bring a wave of left-leaning local candidates who view justice differently. In Florida, for example, a reform DA recently beat out her rival, the incumbent, whom progressive attorneys had criticized for overzealously charging youths as adults for crimes.
The Reflective Democracy Campaign reports that of the more than 2,400 elected district prosecutors in the U.S., 95 percent are white and 85 percent regularly run unopposed. Just 1 percent of prosecutors are women of color. Certainly, this number could shift later this year, as a record-breaking number of women are expected to run for office to combat Trump’s retrogressive social policies. All but four states in the nation have elections to choose their area’s DAs.
A recent article in the American Prospect explains just how powerful DAs are in shaping a city’s priorities when it comes to crime and punishment. District attorneys “are in many ways the most important figures in the system,” Stanford law professor David Alan Sklansky told the American Prospect. “They are crucial gatekeepers between the police and the courts. They get to decide who gets charged and what they get charged with.”
For decades, DAs have enacted punitive, harsh sentences and have been responsible for the millions of prison sentences that make the U.S. the keeper of 21 percent of the world’s prisoners. While those laws, and the lawmakers who voted for them, are certainly to blame, conservative DAs who uphold the laws without concern for reform must share responsibility.
Luckily, many are working to change the face of American district attorneys. The recent Prospect article details several organizations that are working to help reform-minded candidates get elected. Fair and Just Prosecution brings its network of nationwide DAs to “move beyond incarceration-driven approaches” and promote equity in law enforcement. As the American Prospect writes, it’s “meant to connect newly elected district attorneys with more experienced DAs who can help them navigate common challenges.” And the Fair Punishment Project has, in partnership with the ACLU, recently turned its attention to raising local awareness about the impact DAs have on their communities.
In Jeff Sessions’ hyper-conservative justice department, the push to elect more diverse and progressive district attorneys across the country is an important one. Miriam Krinsky, founder and executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, told AlterNet via email, “we need more elected prosecutors like Cook County's Kim Foxx (raised in a Chicago housing project and who broke a glass ceiling through her election to the state’s attorney job), Brooklyn's Eric Gonzalez (who grew up in a poor neighborhood in East New York and is New York’s first Latino DA), or Nueces County's Mark Gonzalez (born in a small Texas town to parents who primarily spoke Spanish) who understand the life circumstances of many of the people who come through the doors of our justice system. And we need DAs who understand what it's like to make a mistake and not have a safety net and whose trust in our justice system has been weakened by past experiences.”
Nonwhite women are so rare in this position that those who boldly seek reform within their counties get national attention. Think of Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore's African-American state's attorney, who in 2015 decided to charge six police officers with the death of Freddie Gray. Mosby was praised for her bravery—law professor Paul Butler told NPR, “there's a new sense that African-American prosecutors can make a difference. We can call that the Marilyn Mosby effect." Then the mainstream media turned against her, calling her a "lightning rod" after she appeared onstage with Prince at a concert in Gray’s honor and accusing her of exploiting the case to build her own platform.
The importance of having nonwhite DAs can’t be overstated. Black Americans are imprisoned at five times the rate of whites. "The group of people who are really the managers of the criminal justice system in America are concentrated among one demographic group: white men," Brenda Choresi Carter of the Reflective Democracy Campaign told NPR. In her view, that doesn’t reflect the population that elects them. “If you're a person of color, you know what it is to be treated with suspicion from a policing perspective."
"Having women and people of color represented more fully in these positions is no guarantee of equality in the criminal justice system, but I do feel very confident that we're not going to get equality with these numbers," Choresi Carter said.
2016 saw a major launch of investment into backing a wave of diverse DAs. American Prospect identifies George Soros as the financial force behind the wave of activism around diversifying America’s DAs:
"In 2016, Soros spent more than $11 million on 12 candidates through various super PACs; ten of them won. He spent $1.4 million in support of Ayala, who ran successfully against the incumbent state’s attorney for the district covering metro Orlando. He also set up PACs in the Harris County election and for Foxx in Chicago. In 2015, he pumped more than $900,000 into a rather obscure DA’s race in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, helping elect challenger James Stewart. He also spent nearly $1.5 million on Krasner’s candidacy in Philadelphia’s Democratic primary. . . . Soros’s Open Society Foundations gave the American Civil Liberties Union a $50 million grant to launch its Smart Justice campaign, which includes a goal of ten victories in key DA races.”
It's too early to tell whether the momentum to bring more people of color to DA's offices across the country will result in more equity in local justice. But experts backing diverse DA candidates say this approach will have a significant impact on who is punished and how. Moreover, it can shape a community's relationship with its law enforcement.
Fair and Just Prosecution's Krinsky said, “Prosecutors serve as the gatekeepers for our criminal justice system, so it is important for prosecutors to reflect and understand their local community and the struggles of all parts of that community. Yet too many elected DAs fail to represent the rich diversity of our nation. Building a corps of prosecutors that reflect the people and places they serve is essential to fortifying bonds of trust and creating an effective criminal justice system.”