Not Everyone is Larry Krasner: The Need for Progressive District Attorneys

By Lee Nave Jr., NLC Boston

Part six of The New Leader series The Arc of Justice: Examining the Failures of the Criminal Justice System and the Hope of Progressive Reforms

The importance of District Attorney races came to national attention when Larry Krasner was elected the District Attorney for the City of Philadelphia. Around the country, the spark for more progressive DA’s had already been lit by the likes of Kim Foxx, Kim Ogg, Aramis Ayala and Eric Gonzales , Mark Gonzales and Melissa Nelson, just to name a few. Yet Krasner’s election became a national focus point on the issue of more progressive DA’s needed, that many in criminal justice reform had been advocating for for a long time.

Krasner was a different sort of person for the job of the traditional DA . He was an activist, with over thirty years of experience as a defense attorney. He’d sued the city of Philadelphia in 2011 for an unlawful arrest of over 50 protesters during Occupy Philadelphia. Krasner even sued the police force that he now, as a District Attorney, works with every day.

Mr. Krasner’s efforts are a bright light, but we must ask, why is there such a deep need for more progressive DA’s? Since becoming DA, Krasner has, according to the Inquirer Daily News, “encouraged his staff to consider shorter sentences in plea deals and to weigh if homicide is the proper charge, and has declared he must personally approve any plea offer with a proposed prison term greater than 15 to 30 years.”

According to an article from The Atlantic published May 18th, 2016, “prosecutors [are] singularly independent agents in a justice system roiling in turmoil. [They] have been facing growing criticism and public distrust for some time, and that disapproval is about to hit a tipping point.”

The article goes on to say that “It’s time to curtail the power long held by these officers of the court as they promote justice, ensure fairness, and enhance public safety.”

The power a District Attorney has at the local level has always been shrouded in shadows. Even on television, these mysterious men (and 79% of them are white men according to this Fusion report) are rarely the focal point when a case is being debated. Shows like Law and Order have, for years, showed small glimpses of interactions with District Attorneys and Assistant District Attorneys (ADAs). These shadowy figures, in their small roles are portrayed as singular focused characters who only fight for “what is right” and “upholding justice.”

Yet few truly recognize how important a District Attorney is to the culture of an office. DA’s set the enforcement policies of their jurisdictions — be it a small town or a major metropolis. They tell their ADA’s what and who to charge, what amounts to ask for bail, and set guidelines on plea bargains. This power is significant in the fact that 94% of all felony convictions at the state level come from plea bargains. Local DA’s set the sentencing recommendations, bail schedules, and in states where it is still legal, they can ask for the death penalty. All of these decisions do not come from some pre-set guideline but actual discretion of the District Attorney.

In almost every state (except four), District Attorney’s must run for election — a total of nearly 2,400 offices countrywide. while this is, in theory, a check on their power, most candidates for District Attorney run unopposed. In practice, then, a single person (who, again, is a white man 79% of the time) has vast discretion in shaping his community’s criminal justice system. According to a recent report by the Vera Institute entitled “An Unjust Burden”, the discretion or “bias” of a prosecutor can “lead to harsher outcomes for black people”. Major concerns such bias in prosecution discretion can cause a person of color to more likely be prosecuted in general, or held pretrial detention in comparison of a white person accused of the same offense.

However this need for more progressive District Attorneys has not seemed to impact races small cities and rural communities.

There were even heavy losses sustained by progressive identifying candidates in California earlier this year. From an LA Times report released in June 6th, Fordham law professor John Plaff stated the following ““Since most prosecutors went unchallenged across the nation for so many years, we don’t really know much about what really works for progressives, or what sort of conditions need to exist for progressives to win.”

Happily, finally, as the criminal justice reform movement has gained steam, we are seeing more activity in these races. In my city of Boston, we have a massive field of five candidates (60% of whom are women and 60% are people of color) running for the open Suffolk County District Attorney’s seat, which had been held by DA Daniel Conley since 2002. According to local advocates, there has never been more concentration given to a District Attorney’s race in Boston.

For this election, the American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts created a campaign entitled “What a Difference a Good DA Makes.” The campaign has partnered with local organizations to have DA forums all around Boston, court watch trainings so that every day citizens see what really happens in the court, as well as provided information on how important DA’s are to the local criminal justice system. And this could not come at a better time. Recently the Massachusetts legislature passed a massive criminal justice reform bill. But it did not include a mandatory minimum repeal — because several country DA’s testified against removing these limits.

With the criminal justice system impacting millions of lives, the need for DA accountability is at an all time high. Electing progressive District Attorney’s such as the Krasners’, Ayalas’ or the Gonzales’ of the world, allow for reformed practices to become the norm. Their elections however, are just phase one of what hopefully become a trend over the next few years .

Lee Nave Jr. is the Community Engagement Coordinator for Citizens for Juvenile Justice, based in Boston, MA. He is a recent NLC Boston Graduate.