Beware of the Backlash Against Reform Prosecutors

Not everyone welcomed the election of reform-minded prosecutors around the country last fall. The case of new Suffolk County. Ma., DA Rachael Rollins is an example of pushback from tough-on-crime advocates, warns a reform advocate.

A month before Suffolk County (Ma.) District Attorney Rachael Rollins was elected to become Boston’s District Attorney—and the first woman to hold that post—she announced that she would not prosecute 15 petty offenses.

They range from charges such as “minor in possession of alcohol,” which needlessly suck normal teenagers and young adults into the criminal justice system, to “disorderly conduct,” a statute so broad that it criminalizes whatever a prosecutor feels like it does.

Now, the National Police Association (NPA), a little-known nonprofit formed in 2017, has filed a bar complaint with the Office of the Bar Counsel in Massachusetts in a presumed attempt to strip Rollins’ law license.

The complaint itself is unlikely to succeed, as it fails to clearly state how she violated the Massachusetts Bar’s ethics rules. But it is worth highlighting as a significant attempt to close the main “safety valve” against American mass incarceration: reform-minded elected prosecutors.

The number of such prosecutors is growing. Last fall’s midterm elections saw the election of prosecutors from both parties committed to reform, in states ranging from Texas to Missouri and Alabama.

For those hoping for a significant shift from the failed “tough on crime” strategies of the 1990s, this was welcome news. But it’s not surprising to see stirrings of a backlash.

The U.S. is the most incarcerated nation on the planet, due to factors such as racism, the politicization of crime, and a victims’ rights movement born out of carceral feminism.

We also lack a culture of restraint when it comes to criminalization and punishment. Unlike most European countries that leave the drafting of penal codes to scholarly experts, our laws are an inconsistent patchwork created by state legislators who generally know nothing about criminology and do not care to know. (Criminal law is a mere fraction of their work.)

However, head county prosecutors, often called District Attorneys, are interested enough in the dynamics of crime and public safety to make criminal justice their entire jobs. While they may be unfamiliar with the academic literature on sound crime control and public safety tactics, they take a more macroscopic and systemic view of potential crimes than the average police officer.

The reason is baked into their job descriptions.

Ultimately, a beat patrol officer in Chelsea, Mass.,—a town with a population of approximately 37,000 people—has one main directive. When there is probable cause a criminal law has been broken, the officer is to arrest a person, drive him or her to the jail, and give a report to prosecutors about what was observed.

In contrast, the District Attorney of Suffolk County (population approximately 800,000) must decide whether the crime is probable beyond a reasonable doubt, and whether it is in the best interest of the public to use limited resources on that case.

That is not to say that policing cannot or should not be more strategic or preventative. David M. Kennedy, now a professor of justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, developed a group violence intervention strategy dubbed the “Boston Miracle,” that was considered responsible for the plummeting of Boston’s homicide rate in the 1990s.

However, the implementation of such strategies by police departments is not bottom-up but top-down—a result of partnerships with police chiefs and other law enforcement leaders.

The U.S. is not about to move to the European model, in which advisory boards of academic experts essentially write state criminal codes in lieu of popularly elected legislators.

We cannot even get states to swallow the Model Penal Code, drafted by the American Law Institute that includes many of America’s most brilliant legal minds.

As such, the closest thing we will get to employing crime expertise to informing criminal justice policy on a day-to-day basis is through our District Attorneys, to whom state legislatures grant nearly unfettered discretion.

This is more or less the conclusion that University of North Carolina Law Professor Carissa Byrne Hessick arrived at in a blog post about Rollins’ petty offense declination policy in September.

In a world of limited resources, District Attorneys cannot prosecute every single crime and petty offense that occurs within their jurisdiction. Instead, they must make decisions on how to use their resources, within the permissive borders of deliberately broad and plentiful criminal laws.

Bill Otis, the Georgetown University law professor whom President Donald Trump nominated to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and who has been sharply criticized for his pro-mass incarceration views—Slate called him “obsessed with black-on-black crime”—has joined the chorus of Rollins critics.

“If I wanted to make a living being a small time thief, would I not be well-advised to move to Suffolk County?” he said, in response to Prof. Hessick.

But Otis ignored the fact that there are many other statutes Rollins could use to crack down on this sort of behavior, one of them being “organized retail crime,” which can fetch up to ten years in state prison.

It is unfair to suggest that Rollins’ plans amount to ineffective crime control measures or will hurt the interests of crime victims. Instead, she is trying to give people a chance to grow from their relatively harmless mistakes without getting clawed into by the criminal justice system.

The same point needs to be emphasized as other reform prosecutors across the country face criticism from those who want to reverse the nationwide movement for justice reform.

It is often said in reform circles that people are more than their worst moments.

Rory Fleming

Rory Fleming

If a person’s worst moment is shoplifting a shirt, making a mean comment on an internet video game, or shooting up heroin while chemically dependent, perhaps desistance from the behavior should be good enough for all of us.

Rory Fleming is the founder of Foglight Strategies, a campaign research services firm for forward-thinking prosecutors nationwide. He previously worked for the Fair Punishment Project, which was founded as a joint project of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute and its Criminal Justice Institute. Rory is a licensed Minnesota attorney and he tweets at @RoryFleming8A. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Why Your Vote Today Can Be the Start of Real Justice Reform

Many prosecutors have made the end of mass incarceration and other justice reforms a focus of their election or re-election campaigns, That’s welcome news, says the director of John Jay’s Institute for Innovations in Prosecution–and long overdue. But it should galvanize support for a broader approach to change.

The scourge of mass incarceration is at last getting the attention it deserves from reform-minded district attorneys around the country. Many of  them are running for election or re-election today.

The data bears out the extent to which elected prosecutors have contributed to the unconscionable number of people in American prisons, the tragically disparate racial impact, and underscores the fact that the exercise of prosecutorial discretion could significantly reduce those numbers.

The Vera Institute’s recent report Unlocking the Black Box of Prosecution provides vital information for both communities and prosecutors to help increase transparency in furtherance of this goal.

The United States has the highest per capita prison rate in the world, with more than two million people in American prisons, of whom nearly 60 percent are people of color (while comprising only 30 percent of the population).

As Michelle Alexander and others have persuasively argued, it cannot be overlooked that all of this exists in the haunting shadow of slavery, and the nation’s moral conscience depends on ending mass incarceration.

But in the midst of the public outcry and the heightened scrutiny of local prosecutors, voters and advocates would be well served to consider the public actors outside the criminal justice system who could do the same.

The agencies responsible for mental health, homelessness, substance use disorders, and other social ills have increasingly experienced political and budgetary constraints since the 1970s, which have been highly variable across agencies and jurisdictions. As communities have found themselves facing increased numbers of people without access to services, the clarion call to elected prosecutors has been to find ways to get those people out of sight, out of mind.

And so, over the past 50 years, coincident with the erosion of public welfare services, Americans have increasingly relied on the criminal justice system to solve problems that are not, at their heart, criminal. Problems like mental health, substance use, and poverty sometimes lead to criminal conduct.

But even more regularly, these conditions lead to conduct of which communities disapprove, but which do not, ultimately, constitute matters warranting criminal justice intervention.

Deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill since the 1960s has led to 2.2 million Americans with severe mental health conditions receiving no psychiatric treatment at all.

In the 1970s, 4.5 million units were removed from the nation’s housing stock, over 1 million SRO units were lost, and the nation’s public housing program was essentially abandoned, while increased numbers of single-person households significantly expanded the demand for housing nation-wide.  Some 25 percent of  incarcerated Americans suffer from mental health problems, and 10 percent are homeless at the time they enter jail or prison.

The effect of increased prosecutions has been well-documented. The devastation of the war on drugs, along with the broken windows policies of the 1990s in New York City and elsewhere, increased the probability of indictment and lengthened sentences for violent crimes, and the attendant parole and probation violations.

Bad federal legislation like the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act incentivized states to increase their prison population.  And so, we have quickly and devastatingly become the most incarcerating country in the history of the world.

Acknowledging this reality, progressive modern prosecutors over the past decade  have responded to requests from communities to become purveyors of alternatives for the homeless, the mentally unwell, or the poor.

And so, as elected officials come under increased scrutiny, Americans have increasingly seen their local DAs developing social service programming for people who come into contact with law enforcement.  Prosecutors across the country have created supervised release, cognitive behavioral therapy, and substance treatment options, to name just a few.

Thoughtful and well-meaning prosecutors, often with little social work, public health, or psychological expertise — responding to their communities as they are charged to do — find themselves making decisions in cases that at other times in American history would have been addressed through mental health facilities, homeless shelters, or other civil service providers.

Why is a prosecutor better situated than any number of other, lighter-touch agencies, to identify programming for a person who repeatedly drives with a suspended drivers’ license to get to work, or who breaks into an abandoned building to seek shelter?

In addition to asking DAs to process and divert these cases out of the courts, communities might also ask for increased early interventions by public housing, public health, and the civil courts.

It is an oft-repeated trope that to someone with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  Americans should turn out to vote for their local reform DAs, and the winners of those elections should continue the trajectory that some have started towards reducing the nation’s prison population.

Lucy Lang

Lucy Lang. Director of the John Jay Institute for Innovation in Prosecution

But perhaps instead of asking the criminal justice system to look like a different tool entirely, communities would be well served to ask the other “tools” — many of which are agencies that are not electorally accountable — to rise to the occasion and help end mass incarceration as well.

Lucy Lang is the Executive Director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She welcomes readers’ comments.

from https://thecrimereport.org