Prosecutorial power finds itself in the spotlight.
The policies and practices that undergird the prosecutor’s position historically have taken place outside of the public’s view. But the prosecutor’s role continued to be a matter of public and editorial debate in 2018 as advocacy groups and the media built on recent efforts to further bring the power of prosecutors into the light.
- In October, the racial advocacy group Color of Change established the first national database of current prosecutors, called “Winning Justice,” where members of the public can look up their local prosecutor and find out when they were elected, their stances on six key policy areas, and their contact information. The six policy areas are: 1) ending the use of money bail; 2) ending the placement of children in adult jails and prisons; 3) stopping unnecessary prosecutions, particularly for low level offenses; 4) practicing transparency and sharing information about their offices; 5) stopping anti-immigrant prosecutions; and 6) holding police accountable when they break the law. The project’s goal is to provide resources to local communities with which they can better engage their local prosecutors.
- In February, civil rights activist Shaun King co-founded the Real Justice PAC to support reform-minded candidates for lead prosecutor, including several who ultimately won their elections—Diana Becton in Contra Costa County, California; Wesley Bell in St. Louis County, Missouri; Joe Gonzales in Bexar County, Texas; and Rachael Rollins in Suffolk County, Massachusettes.
- In his remarks following receiving an ethics in government award from the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, former President Barack Obama urged community members who are “concerned about how the criminal justice system treats African-Americans” to “protest” by voting for lead prosecutors “who are looking at issues in a new light.”
- Two episodes of The Appeal’s podcast Justice in America focused on prosecutors. In an August episode featuring John Pfaff, journalists Josie Duffy Rice and Clint Smith examined the problems with prosecutors, including “their excessive power, negative incentives, and almost total lack of accountability.” In an episode in September, they looked at the movement to elect reform-minded prosecutors and what it means to be a “progressive prosecutor,” speaking with Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change.
- Comedians Samantha Bee and John Oliver ran segments on prosecutors on their shows, focusing on topics such as public accountability, violations of discovery requirements, wrongful convictions, and jailing witnesses.
- National news outlets such as the New York Times, NPR, the New Yorker, and Newsweek published pieces on the power of prosecutors and reform efforts launched by lead prosecutors across the country. In October, The Marshall Project profiled Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, the first black woman to hold that position, overseeing the second largest prosecutor’s office in the country.
- Court watch programs enlisted volunteers to document and publicize the everyday case decisions made by judges and prosecutors. In February, Court Watch NYC—modeled after a similar effort organized in Chicago in 2017—began to observe Brooklyn and Manhattan criminal courts. Although information about bail set in New York City courts is available online, “[t]he only way to determine other information, such as racial disparities in what bail [attorneys] request or how prosecutors influence a judge’s decisions, is to sit there,” according to Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director of VOCAL-NYC, one of the organizations leading Court Watch NYC. A similar court watching effort was also launched in Boston. Between May and September, 162 volunteers with Court Watch MA completed 219 court-watching shifts in Boston courts, observing the activities in at least one court every day.
- In October, the Vera Institute of Justice launched “Unlocking the Black Box of Prosecution,” an interactive web guide for community members and prosecutors to educate and empower people to engage with their local lead prosecutors. The guide explains prosecutorial decision making at seven key stages in a criminal case—charging, bail, diversion, discovery, case processing, pleas, and sentencing—and provides key questions people can ask local prosecutors about their policies and practices.
- The Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice has hosts “The Executive Session on Reimagining the Role of the Prosecutor in the Community,” bringing together 35 elected prosecutors, policy experts, and directly impacted people from across the country to study and publish on issues related to the evolving role of prosecutors. The first paper from that collaboration was published in November, a joint effort by King County (Seattle), Washington, prosecuting attorney Dan Satterberg and Wake Forest law professor Ronald Wright that argues that prosecutors who engage with and develop a reputation for fairness and trustworthiness in the community—sometimes by changing the priorities of their office—are more effective, create an environment where the community is more likely to report crime, and are more likely to be supported by forthcoming witnesses. Additional papers are forthcoming in 2019.
- In December, Fair and Just Prosecution released 21 Principles for the 21st Century Prosecutor in partnership with Yale Law School Senior Research Scholar Emily Bazelon, the Justice Collaborative, and the Brennan Center for Justice. The document, which includes sections on “how to reduce incarceration” and “how to increase fairness,” is intended as “a blueprint for elected prosecutors seeking to move away from past incarceration-based approaches and toward new pathways that promote equity, compassion and prevention-oriented responses within the criminal justice system.”