Prosecutors & Reform

39 American Prosecutors Promise to Go to Jail & Prison to See for Themselves the Consequences of Their Decisions

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

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.

Author Emily Bazelon is also a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine and is the Truman Capote Fellow for Creative Writing and Law at Yale Law School.

That image is out of date, according to Bazelon.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.

Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair & Just Prosecution, served for 15 years as a federal prosecutor, was the executive director for the Los Angeles County’s Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, spent a year working inside the Sheriff’s Department as the Special Advisor to the Sheriff, and was co-director of the transition team for the then newly elected Los Angeles City Attorney.

“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.

9 Comments

  • And never mind the consequences of the precious criminals’ actions, right? The wake left behind these miscreants is unimaginable, yet you choose to focus on them instead of the innocent victims. Shameful.

  • Wow Celeste why don’t you officially make Witness LA part of Gascon’s campaign site.

    Although the visits are not a bad idea, wouldn’t it be a better idea for convicted criminals and defense advocates/attorney’s to see behind the walls of victims so they have a better understanding of what was left in their wake!

    After all, the defendants chose their path, knowing what was possibly on the other side of the prison walls, but the victims path was chosen for them. I guess that’s ok in your book.

    While your on this soap box, why not talk about the BOS doing away with a state of the art jail project that was supposed to replace the antiquated Men’s Central Jail.

    The unfortunate reality is people are going to commit crimes and go to jail (maybe not so much under Gascon), so wouldn’t it be wiser to support a jail with better conditions and resources to try and help the offenders.

    I think if you asked anyone who has a family member who continuously goes to jail, despite their attempts to help them, would they want them in a state of the art facility, the answer would be yes.

    But go ahead and continue to blame the system, that reacts to the actions of the offenders. The future picture is no reaction or limited action from the system, and more victims.

    Most of us who are part of this “system” have the training and ability to protect our loved ones. Where does that leave you when there is no desire to protect people we don’t know.

    That’s not a threat, that’s a reality of which you and the reformers could one day realize!

    • Your post will still be read without starting out by being facetious.
      FYI, a state of the art facility means nothing without true professionals truly involved and running it, which would include deputies.

    • And you can bet the white political establishment will try to prop him up just like they did with McDonnell, and the result will still be the same.

      • You talk about Gascon but fail to look at another cause for the downward spiral in crime and punishment, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Becerra’s act of covering up for crooked cops is unprecedented which is a whole different thread.
        Maybe someone could enlighten Jackie Lacy and her office about crooked cops in Los Angeles County.

          • Easy, crooked cops are part of the uptick in crime, period.
            The criminals who are not dirty cops don’t have the luxury of politicians covering up for them and impeding the wheels of justice.
            This is a no-brainer, the penal code applies to all.

  • Upper class white ladies indulging in their social justice hobby. Couldn’t help but notice the California district attorneys mentioned in the story all come from cities where your average one bed room apartment’s rent starts at 3000 dollars a month. Of course they have no qualms on telling the lower classes how to run their cities , cities where the poor aren’t so easily priced out.

    Ron Hernandez is right, it’s pretty disgusting how Witness la keeps slobbering over this Gascon character. Perhaps witness la should change its name to witness San Francisco / Silicon Valley or whatever.

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