Platform for a 21st Century Prosecutor
Local and state prosecutors hold extraordinary power in the criminal justice system. How they exercise discretion at each stage of criminal proceedings—from initial charging decisions to the sentences they seek to impose—determines whether the local justice system is fair and just. They also wield significant influence as policymakers and civic leaders, and can work with legislators, judges, public defenders, law enforcement, and other community stakeholders to advance justice through policy reforms.
Prosecutors can and should use this power to end the scourge of mass incarceration in America. The United States has the largest prison population in the world, and 87 percent of those imprisoned are held in state or local prisons and jails. The United States’ over-reliance on incarceration and harsh punishment is both costly and ineffective; it exacts enormous financial, emotional, and social costs on communities across the country while exacerbating recidivism and leading to more crime.
This platform outlines specifically how local prosecutors—through a combination of prosecutorial discretion and policy reforms—can address key drivers of mass incarceration. It relies on five basic principles:
Ensure that everyone is treated equally under the law
End the War on Drugs.
Promote Transparency and Accountability.
Promote Policies that Aid Undocumented Communities.
Make Punishment Fair.
1. Ensure that everyone is treated equally under the law
- End the Use of Money Bail: The continued use of unjust money bail policies contributes to the overall incarceration of poor people and disproportionately harms people of color by keeping them incarcerated simply because they cannot afford to pay bail.
- Make Diversion Programs Accessible to All: Pretrial diversion creates opportunities for people charged with an offense to get the support and education necessary for rehabilitation, and allows successful individuals to avoid the collateral consequences of a conviction, which can be detrimental to future employment, housing, and education. Pretrial diversion should be available to anyone eligible to participate in the program, irrespective of an individual’s ability to pay a fine or fee.
- Avoid the Criminalization of Poverty: Local criminal justice systems disproportionately harm people living in poverty. Whether through the imposition of fines and fees as a condition to resolving cases, or through laws that effectively criminalize homelessness, local actors have imposed a poverty penalty on many people within our communities. Locally-elected prosecutors should adopt the following policies to reduce the number of people who remain in jails or have criminal convictions simply because they are poor.
- End Civil Asset Forfeiture: In many states, law enforcement can seize money, personal belongings, and property from people without even charging them with a crime or obtaining a conviction. Often, the money seized is then used to pad law enforcement budgets. There is no place for this practice, which has received criticism from across the ideological spectrum. Prosecutors must resolve to put an end to asset forfeiture in their counties.
- End Debtor’s Prison: Thousands of people are jailed for fines they cannot afford to pay for low level, traffic, and quality of life offenses. Incarceration destabilizes individual’s lives, the lives of their families, the community as a whole. No person should be jailed because they could not pay a fine or fee.
2. End the War on Drugs.
- Keep People Out of Jail for Drug-Related Offenses: Years of experience with aggressive yet ineffective drug laws and the latest medical research on addiction suggest that treating drug use as a public health issue, as opposed to a criminal justice issue, is a more effective approach to reducing harm. Locally-elected prosecutors should adopt the following policies or engage in the following actions to reduce the number of people in jails and prisons for drug-related offenses.
- Treat Opioid Addiction as a Public Health Problem: The opioid crisis claims tens of thousands of lives every year, and has shown few signs of abating. Prohibitionist policies did not win the war on drugs, and they will not end this crisis. Prosecutors can play an important role in ending the crisis, but only if they treat addiction as a public health crisis, rather than a criminal justice concern.
3. Promote Transparency and Accountability to the Community
- Engage with the Community You Represent: Enhancing transparency and accountability within the district attorney’s office is critical to ending the win-at-any-cost pursuit of high conviction rates that fails communities and to ensuring community accountability. Providing the community with information about arrest rates, charging decisions, and sentencing policies will help build and maintain trust between the office and the community it serves.
- Create an Independent Public Integrity Unit: The district attorney must be committed to rigorously and independently investigating and prosecuting police and other official misconduct. An independent Public Integrity Unit tasked with investigating and prosecuting alleged instances of public corruption, fraud, police shootings, or other abuses of power will help avoid concerns about bias in cases involving police misconduct.
- Develop Policies that Ensure the Integrity of Convictions: Law enforcement officials and prosecutors will inevitably make mistakes. The consequences of wrongful convictions are manifold; the innocent person spends years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and justice continues to elude the victim’s family. Prosecutors must be vigorous in re-examining prior cases whenever there is credible evidence of innocence, and must develop policies that limit the possibility of future wrongful convictions.
4. Promote Policies that Aid Undocumented Communities
In the last year, undocumented communities have come under increasing attack because of increasingly vicious federal immigration laws. These policies not only allow for deportation because of minor allegations like possession of drugs, but they also make communities less safe, as undocumented victims fear going to court or speaking to law enforcement. Prosecutors protect our most vulnerable individuals.
5. Make punishment fair.
- Treat Kids Like Kids: Children’s brains continue developing until around the age of 25 and research supports their enhanced capacity for rehabilitation. As a result, children should not be prosecuted in adult court, nor should they be given punishments that preclude the opportunity for redemption. Locally-elected prosecutors should adopt the following policies to ensure that children are treated like children in the criminal justice system.
- Do Not Seek the Death Penalty: The use of the death penalty has become increasingly isolated to a handful of jurisdictions within the United States. There is mounting evidence that the death penalty is fraught with error, provides no additional public safety benefit over other available sentences, and is routinely used against individuals with diminished culpability, including persons with intellectual disabilities and severe mental illness, youthful offenders under the age of 21, and those who have experienced extreme childhood trauma. Locally-elected prosecutors should use their discretion not to seek the death penalty.
- Promote Proportionate Sentencing and Pathways to Second Chances: People are more than their worst acts, and even people who commit the most serious offenses often change their lives profoundly over time. To recognize the worth and potential for growth in all people, it is important for local prosecutors to provide individualized consideration to the character and background of each person and to the circumstances surrounding the commission of the offense. It also is critical for elected prosecutors to promote opportunities for release, through parole or clemency, and to help remove barriers to reentering society for those who are released from incarceration.
- Eliminate Unnecessary Punishments: Criminal punishments for certain crimes, including quality-of-life offenses, are by definition excessive. They saddle people with criminal records, and therefore lifelong barriers to economic success, who pose no public safety risk.