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Hot topic in the debate: prosecutors
You may have seen or heard that candidates at the Republican debate last night spent a lot of time bashing elected prosecutors. Why did this formerly obscure office take center stage?
Over the past ~8 years, communities around America have elected and reelected dozens of reform prosecutors. Roughly 40 million Americans now live in a jurisdiction overseen by a DA who ran on a reform platform. This isn’t just significant for the cause of criminal justice reform – it’s a major step forward for democracy in the following respects:
Local communities are having a real say, for the first time, in electing prosecutors that represent their values and demographics. In the past, the vast majority of prosecutors ran unopposed (in many cases the incumbent would step down and appoint their successor, who would then win the election), and 14 states had zero elected prosecutors of color;
The right to protest justice issues, from racial justice, to climate, to reproductive rights, has a better chance of being respected under a reform-minded DA. The prosecutor can make the difference between protestors held in jail under felony charges with $350,000 bails set, and a few nights in jail with some court fees;
Powerful people and companies may be held accountable for crimes or may act with impunity, based on how prosecutors choose to enforce the law. Will they spend their time prosecuting wage theft, which accounts for more dollars than all robberies, burglaries, and motor thefts combined? Or will they go after impoverished people and continue to cycle them through jail. A core tenant of our democracy is that we strive to build a society where power shall be held to account. Evening the scales of prosecution is part of that effort.
Unfortunately, the Democratic party has tended to prosecutor elections as a peripheral concern, failing to appreciate the value of what has been won, and risking regression in major jurisdictions. Meanwhile, Republicans like DeSantis have taken full aim at reform prosecutors, frequently mentioning them in their speeches and working overtime to remove elected prosecutors from office (as DeSantis has done twice now, in Orlando and Tampa).
Why do Republicans care so much about prosecutors? Two reasons are top of mind: (1) wielding the ‘crime’ cudgel (article is the source of the chart below) is a tried and true political strategy, winning media attention and votes even when claims are unsupported by evidence; and (2) true community control of the prosecutor function is dangerous to their interests, and vital to their opponents.
Folks who aren’t focused on criminal justice issues should recognize that just as new abortion laws aren’t being passed out of concern for children’s wellbeing, just so the recalls and removals of prosecutors for leading their offices in a new direction (as requested by the voters) are not about safety. No, this game is about power. The amount of power that has changed hands in recent years thanks to this revolution in prosecutor elections is stunning when you step back and look at it. Is there a comparable shift anywhere else in our system of elected offices that embodies the values of progressive democracy?
Coda: While we’re talking about power, if anyone is confused about why Republicans would attack some DAs for being less aggressive on prosecution, but then also attack the Atlanta DA for being aggressive in prosecuting Trump and associates, the answer is that this is about politics, not any coherent conversation about safety, order, etc. The question is not about ‘what to prosecute’ (aka what actions are and aren’t in line with the values of that jurisdiction) but ‘who to prosecute’. I’m reminded of this pithy, oft-quoted observation (which Slate tracked down to a blogger): "Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect."
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