On Monday, 39 elected prosecutors came together in order to commit to personally visit the jails and prisons in which men and women prosecuted by their offices are routinely placed.
The idea behind the pledge, according to those involved, is the recognition that justice is more likely to occur if all members of the justice system understand and remember the true impact of their decisions during the day-to-day practice of their professions. Hence the jail and prison visits.
This kind of reminder, according to justice experts and others, is particularly needed for prosecutors.
“We often think of prosecutors and defense lawyers as points of a triangle on the same plane, with the judge poised above them,” writes Emely Bazelon, author of the excellent book, Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration, released in April of this year.
That image is out of date, according to Bazelon. “It’s not how the system works anymore,” she writes. “Much of the time, prosecutors, more than judges, control the outcome.” This is true in that they make “most of the key decisions in a case, from choosing the charge to making he bail demand, to determining the plea bargain.” Prosecutors decide, especially, writes Bazelon, “who gets a second chance.”
With this understanding in mind, justice reformers both on the right and the left have begun seeing prosecutors as the key to real change, thus are pushing DA’s around the nation to see “ensuring fairness as integral to public safety,” says Bazelon.
Having district attorneys and other prosecutors going to visit jails and prisons is a step in that direction, according to Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor who is also the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, the nonprofit that, in the last few years, has become nationally known for offering support to D.A.s around the nation who want to find the best and most effective paths to reform.
Prosecutors control the front door of the justice system through their tremendous discretion and weighty charging decisions — and so much else that follows in the lives of individuals in their community when they open that criminal justice door,” Krinsky told WitnessLA.
“As they exercise that power, they have an obligation to see and understand the conditions in the jails and prisons” where their choices send people, “as well as the impact of those decisions on the individuals incarcerated within their walls, their families and the broader community.”
In addition to promising to make visits themselves, the 39 prosecutors who signed on to Monday’s pledge have also committed to implementing the same requirement for all prosecutors in their offices, with the purpose of embedding a more grounded and humane kind of thinking in the culture of DAs’ offices around the U.S.
“We hope that by bringing prosecutors closer to those impacted by their actions, they will have a new perspective as they weigh whether to argue for incarceration, or whether they instead search for alternatives,” said Krinsky.
Out of the prosecutors who have signed on to Monday’s announcement, right now there are three DAs from California: Jeff Rosen, District Attorney for Santa Clara County; Diana Becton, District Attorney of Contra Costa County; and the newly-elected Chesa Boudin, District Attorney-Elect for the City and County of San Francisco.
Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, of King County, WA, who also signed the pledge, explained why he thought it was important. Prosecutors, he said, “routinely recommend prison sentences without fully understanding the conditions we are sending people into.”
That’s exactly the purpose of this pledge, said Satterberg, to “end our reluctance to look behind prison walls, and regularly engage with the men and women we have sent there in order to envision something better for them and for their communities.”
As for Los Angeles, District Attorney Jackie Lacey reportedly didn’t reply to the invitation to join the pledge.
And since only elected prosecutors were asked to join the go-to-prison initiative, we don’t know for certain how Lacey’s challengers Rachel Rossi, a former federal public defender, and Richard Ceballos, a defense attorney turned prosecutor, would have responded, although both are running as reformers.
We do know, however, that former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, who is also one of those challenging Lacey, made a point of regularly meeting with inmates at San Quentin State Prison during his years as the top SF prosecutor, as did prosecutors in his office. And in January 2017, Gascón and others from the SFDA’s Office led more than 40 elected district attorneys and approximately 28 assistant district attorneys from throughout the United States to San Quentin.