Prosecutors who wanted to limit mass incarceration hit a roadblock: Lawmakers tough on crime

“Contradictory” by Keri Blaker is a partnership between NBC News and Project Marshall, a nonprofit news agency that covers the US criminal justice system. This column draws on Blakinger’s unique perspective as an investigative journalist and former detainee.

When Deborah Gonzalez campaigned in 2020 to become the first Latina district attorney in Georgia, she wanted to upset the status quo.

“It is very progressive platformand I was very vocal about wanting to run to address systemic racism,” she said.

She promises to lock up fewer people and limit low-level drug prosecutions.

But quick response. First, the governor tried to cancel elections. He failed, and she won. Then the conservatives pushed redraw her second district beneficial to them.

And this year, Republican lawmakers are backing a bill that could significantly influence reform-minded prosecutors like Gonzalez across the state. If it passes, the measure will establish a designated supervisory committee with the ability to remove state attorneys general from office if they fail to prosecute certain crimes — like the minor drug charges Gonzalez has vowed to avoid.

“Prosecutors seeking to reform the system or tackle racial inequality are being targeted by partisan lawmakers,” said James Woodall, a public policy associate at the Southern Center for Human Rights. . “This bill is an attempt to take away their discretion.”

The war in Georgia highlights an emerging pattern across the nation: Even as radical prosecutors win voter support, established forces sometimes work to rein in power. surname. Are from Virginia arrive Missouri arrive TexasConservatives have supported bills that would have allowed the state to take over cases local attorneys chose not to pursue, undermining the ability of elected prosecutors to implement reforms that would win voters’ favor. for them from the very beginning.

Conservatives often argue that these prosecutors’ less punitive policies is a threat arrive public safety. In response, progressives like Gonzalez often say that their policies keep people from being jailed for petty crimes that don’t endanger the public, and that Some studies show that imprison yourself can increase crime.

Deborah Gonzalez was the first Latina district attorney in Georgia.Deborah Gonzalez / via Facebook

It is a new iteration of the old war between state and local authorities, experts say, amplified by the fact that prosecutors have traditionally been the established force and are now, in some places , they are not.

When I was arrested for drug possession in late 2010, I didn’t know much about what the district attorneys did and could probably name no one but Jack McCoy from “Law & Order.” I certainly don’t know how much power they have when it comes to decisions like which crimes to prosecute, and – importantly – which ones not.

My first suggestion was at the county jail, where I was moved when I saw a close friend sitting near me in the visiting room. I knew I was facing prison time and didn’t expect to see many familiar faces where I was going.

“You are lucky,” he told me.

It sounds ridiculous – but he knows more about the system than I do because he’s been in prison before. He explained: “If I was arrested in a county where prosecutors are more conservative, they would probably pile on other charges – such as intent to distribute drugs – and I would consider a decades or more behind bars. Instead, in the deep blue Tompkins County, they can stick to a single charge, and I’ll take a look at that fraction of the time.

My friend was right, and I ended up being sentenced to 2.5 years in prison.

The district attorney whose office prosecuted me in 2011 touted rehabilitation and rehab. I never heard her describe as a progressive prosecutor at the time; until a few years later justice reformers began to turn their attention to the exploitation of power by prosecutors, who spoke of reversing mass incarceration, denying low-level drug cases, prosecuting police and combating segregation. systematic racism.

Reformers won elections from Boston to Philadelphia to Dallas, but they also came under criticism — especially from law enforcement unions and other prosecutors. In 2019, US Attorney General Bill Barr said prosecutors who “brand themselves as ‘social justice’ reformers, taking their time to take down the police, let criminals run rampant and refuse to enforce the law” are “dismayed to law enforcement agencies and a danger to public safety”.

In some jurisdictions, such criticism has led to recall efforts – most notably against George Gascón in Los Angeles and Chesa Boudin in San Francisco. (San Francisco is go to a vote this year, while LA failed to make it through – despite Gascón .’s rival trying again.) Elsewhere, they have led to legal efforts to undermine prosecutors’ discretion to not press charges and not seek the harshest punishments.

Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced in 2017 that her office would no longer pursue the death penalty as a sentence.Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel / Tribune News Service via Getty Images

One of the first prominent examples of this was in Florida, after Aramis Ayala won the state’s bar race in 2016 and announced her office would stop seeking the death penalty. Republican Governor Rick Scott transfer some capital cases to another state’s attorney who advocated the death penalty. Ayala sued, but in 2017 the Florida Supreme Court sided with Scott.

Two years later, Pennsylvania lawmakers cut Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner with a bill that would allow state attorneys general to prosecute gun crimes – only in Philadelphia, and only until the end of Krasner’s first term. After the change begins fervent feedbackThe attorney general announced that he would not use the new law and would support its repeal.

The following year in Indiana, Ryan Mears became Marion County’s top prosecutor and announced that he would stop pursuing low-profile marijuana cases. In response, Republican legislators recommend an invoice allows the state to take on cases that locally elected prosecutors like Mears decide not to pursue on a large scale, such as petty drug offenses. That didn’t pass, but it up to review again this year.

The Georgia proposal takes a bolder approach, creating a mechanism to eliminate reform-minded district attorneys altogether. Method of obtaining steam after 2020 murder by Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man killed by three white men while jogging. How prosecutors handled the case – and the fact that it took three months to pursue the charges – helped spark bipartisan interest in enhancing the accountability of the prosecution.


But Democrats worry the proposal could turn into a political weapon. While the measure would make it easier to hold prosecutors accountable for misconduct or remove them for incompetence, it would also allow the commission, led by the Republican governor to Appointment peace and legislative leaders – remove prosecutors to avoid pursuing certain charges.

“The role of the district attorney is to follow the law and prosecute criminals,” Houston Republican Rep. Gaines tell Flagpole, a local magazine, in December. Gonzalez, he added, didn’t do that. “It’s something that I believe the state has to look at holistically, and I believe we will, and we’ll do it very soon, because it’s putting the community at risk.”

Gaines did not respond to requests for comment, and neither did some of the bill’s sponsors.

They have until early April to pass the measures. And Gonzalez is concerned.

“There is always an expectation that DAs will be tough on crime,” she said. But DAs also always have the power to choose which cases to prosecute and how to charge them.

“It’s the same tool,” she said, “and it’s being used by a different group of people with a different set of goals.” Prosecutors who wanted to limit mass incarceration hit a roadblock: Lawmakers tough on crime

Jake Nichol

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