The State of Prosecution

Prosecutors Step into the Spotlight of Justice Reform

Thanks in part to grassroots organizing efforts seeking to reduce mass incarceration, a new conversation around local elected prosecutors emerged in 2017. A small but significant cohort of reform-minded prosecutors was elected or assumed office in jurisdictions around the country, promising to reduce incarceration associated with lower-level charges through the use of diversion and alternative to incarceration programs, reform bail practices that exacerbate pretrial detention, and focus prosecutorial resources on more serious cases in the pursuit of public safety.[]Justin Miller, “The New Reformer DAs,” American Prospect, January 2, 2018; and Henry Gass, “Meet a New Breed of Prosecutor,” Christian Science Monitor, July 17, 2017. These new leaders have also joined forces to form peer and professional networks, such as the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, and Fair and Just Prosecution, to bolster reform efforts.[]Institute for Innovation in Prosecution; and Fair and Just Prosecution.

In contrast, federal prosecution took a different direction in 2017, largely due to President Trump’s appointment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to carry out his administration’s “tough on crime” policies. One of Sessions’s first actions was to issue a memorandum directing federal prosecutors to charge the most serious crimes with the most severe penalties, a “War on Drugs”-era tactic that has been responsible, in part, for the rise in incarceration since the 1990s, a rise that largely impacted people of color.[]Memorandum from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to All Federal Prosecutors, “Department Charging and Sentencing Policy,” (Washington, DC: Office of the Attorney General, May 10, 2017); and Drug Policy Alliance, The Drug War, Mass Incarceration and Race (Washington, DC: Drug Policy Alliance, 2016. The U.S. Attorneys at the helm of the country’s 93 federal prosecution units will be expected to follow this policy—or resign.[]Sari Horwitz, “A Month After Dismissing Federal Prosecutors, Justice Department Does Not Have Any U.S. Attorneys in Place,” Washington Post, April 18, 2017.

Top Things to Know

  1. Reform-minded candidates defeat “tough on crime” incumbents.
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  2. Changes to charging practices keep some individuals arrested for lower-level offenses out of the criminal justice system.
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  3. Some prosecutors promote diversion programs as an alternative to incarceration.
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  4. Prosecutors are considering their role in the bail reform movement.
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  5. Newly elected prosecutors are playing a role in the movement to end capital punishment.
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  1. Prosecutors are adjusting their practices to avoid putting non-citizens at risk of deportation.
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  2. Journalists are taking a closer look at the impact of elected prosecutors.
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Facts and Figures

On Our Radar

  • More than 1,000 prosecutors are up for election in 2018.
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Best of 2017


Vera Staff

External Reviewers

  • Miriam Aroni Krinsky
  • John Pfaff
  • Meg Reiss
  • Chloe Cockburn