Prosecutors have historically perpetuated mass incarceration and racial disparities in our legal system. But they can choose to be agents of change to support safer communities.

Prosecutors (also known as District Attorneys or State’s Attorneys) are government lawyers at the local, state, and federal level who review or approve of police arrests of individuals accused of crimes, offer plea deals, and hold trials. They play a critical role in our criminal legal system in that they have the ultimate power to charge individuals for crimes.

Prosecutors have played a significant role in the creation and perpetuation of our mass incarceration system and its impact on communities of color. Law enforcement, elected officials, and other government entities have often measured prosecutors’ success by the number of convictions and length of sentences they deliver instead of their impact on safety.

But prosecutors can choose a different path toward safer communities. Vera calls for prosecutors to reduce racial disparities and end mass incarceration through smart, evidence-based decision-making and community involvement—to achieve transformative change with measurable outcomes.

Prosecutors have the power to remedy the discriminatory treatment of African Americans in the criminal justice process.

Angela J. Davis, Distinguished Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law

A key role in centuries of racial injustice

Prosecutors have played a central role in perpetuating racial injustice as enforcers of racially discriminatory laws and practices. Their ability to decide who to charge with a crime, what crime to charge, whether to request bail, what plea to offer, and what sentence to request means they have a direct hand in how people engage with the criminal legal system.

Prosecutors have used this power for centuries to perpetuate a system that imprisons more people than anywhere in the world, notably including:

  • sending formerly enslaved Black people to jail in the late-nineteenth century for “walking without purpose”;
  • enforcing the segregationist Jim Crow laws of the Civil Rights Era; and
  • increasing sentence lengths for some classes of drugs, perpetuating racial discrimination during the more recent, so-called “War on Drugs.”

94%
of felony convictions are the result of a prosecutor-controlled plea deal
11x
increase in the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses from 1980 to 2015
Calling on prosecutors to change the system

Recently, some prosecutors have begun instituting important criminal legal system reforms. Yet, prosecutors must do more and decisively change their policies and practices to decrease the impact of mass incarceration on communities of color.

In 2021, Vera launched Motion For Justice in collaboration with the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution to decrease the impact of mass incarceration in prosecution reform by working directly with prosecutors and communities to bring about change.