Document Preview
  • Full Text
  • Trade Journal

Using the Power of Prosecutors to Drive Reform

Full text preview

For decades prosecutors have routinely been both praised and criticized for their decisions, but until recently, the scope of prosecutorial decision-making authority-the sheer power granted to prosecutors-got little public scrutiny. Outside of legal practitioners, and defendants on the receiving end of prosecutorial discretion, many Americans have little conception of how much latitude DAs have in the criminal justice process. Consequently, many also underestimate how much responsibility prosecutors bear for profound systemic failures like mass incarceration, widespread racial disparities in the justice system, and the persistence of violent crime plaguing the same communities for whom the system is most punitive.

In recent years though, the veil has been pulled back. Thanks to the work of reform advocates and insurgent candidates for district attorney, public awareness and criticism of the institutional power of DAs is growing. From rural Mississippi and Louisiana, to Philadelphia and Chicago, voters have elected a wave of new prosecutors with a mandate to upend the tough-on-crime orthodoxy that pervades most prosecutors' offices.

The Brooklyn DA's Office was ahead of this trend in many ways, prioritizing fundamental fairness over racking up convictions long before the recent reform wave. Brooklyn has an extensive array of alternativeto-incarceration programs and innovative problemsolving courts. The Office implemented open-file discovery more than two decades before this year's passage of a discovery reform law by the New York State Legislature. And in 2014, the Brooklyn DA's Office expanded its Conviction Review Unit into the largest in the nation.

Nevertheless, when I ran for Brooklyn DA in 2017, voter dissatisfaction with the justice system was palpable. People in every neighborhood, from every racial, ethnic, and religious community, told the same stories. People who had been victims of crime felt like the DA's Office didn't care about them, and people who had been accused of crimes felt they...