Prosecutors have enormous power to prevent and rectify the harms of the criminal legal system. Ninety-four percent of felony convictions are the result of a plea deal, and the prosecutor largely controls the charges offered, the sentence length, the type of sentence, and any conditions of community supervision. Through Motion for Justice, Vera helps prosecutors divert people away from incarceration and pursue racially equitable reforms.

Motion for Justice participants partner with a community-based organization and receive training support, technical assistance, and data analysis guidance. These partnerships offer opportunities to build community power and increased district attorney (DA) accountability. Vera assists by providing data, offering tools to build community engagement, and helping communities craft policies that increase justice in the criminal legal system.

In June, Motion for Justice added the following new partners, who are working to create lasting policies and practices that tackle the racial injustices deeply rooted in the criminal legal system.

  • Westchester County District Attorney Miriam Rocah and the Youth Shelter of Westchester
  • Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephen Descano and Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources of Fairfax County
  • Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit and My Brother’s Keeper Washtenaw County
  • Athens-Clarke County District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez and People Living in Recovery
  • Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones and Savannah Feed the Hungry
  • Kauai County Prosecutor Justin Kollar and Hale Opio
  • Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears and Horizon House
  • Franklin County District Attorney Matt Fogal and Racial Reconciliation
  • Arlington and Falls Church District Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources of Arlington, Alexandria, and Falls Church

Here are two examples of work changes that Motion for Justice partners are making in their communities.

Five years after Philando Castile was fatally shot after being pulled over for a broken taillight in Ramsey County, Minnesota, Motion for Justice Partner County Attorney John Choi announced that his office would no longer prosecute cases against people who were unfairly targeted and detained during non–public safety traffic stops. Non–public safety stops include stops for infractions that do not pose an immediate threat to safety, like broken taillights.

Following Ramsey County’s announcement, Vera Trustee Caron Butler wrote about his first-hand experience with non–public safety stops and explained why this change in policy is so important:

Read Caron's blog

Eliminating Firearm Enhancements

In August, Motion for Justice partner Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon announced a new policy that limits the use of a felony firearm charge enhancement to ensure that people are prosecuted only on their actual behavior. Under a Michigan law adopted in 1976, felony possession of a firearm results in a mandatory minimum sentence of two years. This law was intended to deter gun violence, but its application drove mass incarceration and racial inequity, while failing to keep the public safer. Vera worked with community-based organization One Love Global on a series of public presentations about the power of the prosecutor’s office that highlighted data on the disparities in prosecution based on race, income level, neighborhood, and gender. For example, in 2018, 90 percent of people in prison due only to this felony firearm charge enhancement and from Ingham County were Black. In 2018, 80 percent of people in prison with this charge enhancement from Ingham County were Black. During the presentations, Siemon listened to concerns from the community, answered questions about how her office functions, took ownership of the disparities, and expressed her commitment to enacting policies to address it.

As a result of this work, Siemon decided to limit application of the problematic Michigan felony firearm charge, issuing the following statement:

Prosecutor Carol Siemon—Statement on Felony Firearm Policy

August 2021

[This] Felony Firearm policy was issued to address the very real and significant racial disparity of how this law has been utilized since its inception in 1976. While the original legislative goal was to deter gun violence by creating a mandatory two-year prison sentence, the reality is that crime and gun violence continued to rise until it peaked in 1991. Not only did the felony firearm law not serve its stated function of reducing gun violence, it was another way, like the ill-conceived ‘war on drugs’ in the 1980s and 1990s, that dramatically increased the incarceration of Black men.

. . . I was elected both in 2016 and 2020 on a platform of using research, evidence, and data to enact policies and practices to promote the dual goals of protecting the interests of victims and our community while also reducing mass incarceration and racial injustice. This policy is another step to fulfill that promise.

In developing this policy, we considered the fact that if a firearm is used in a crime, it is covered in the sentencing guidelines for the underlying felony offense, such as an armed robbery, homicide, or assault with intent to great bodily harm. We also considered other felony cases, such as a breaking and entering of a building, strangulation, or other very serious crimes where a firearm is not used. Ultimately, the question is whether we have the appropriate legal tools available to hold an offender accountable for his or her behavior without utilizing this ‘add-on’ charge that has resulted in 82 percent of those incarcerated on this statute statewide being Black. This is a race equity issue, not a gun violence issue. We remain committed to using multiple laws, tools, and strategies to reduce gun violence, promote public safety, and hold perpetrators accountable—without using this one particular law that no-one can question has disproportionately impacted Black community members. . . . The criminal legal system is complicated and nuanced and the people of Ingham County deserve complicated and nuanced responses.

Carol Siemon
Ingham County Prosecutor