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New Age of Criminal Justice Calls for a New Kind of District Attorney

Cities can elect progressive District Attorneys, but if those prosecutors are joining the same organizations that have stifled reform for decades, then all that will change are local practices—not the larger system

A survey by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that 91% of people support criminal justice reform, and a majority of people acknowledge racial bias in the system. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A survey by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that 91% of people support criminal justice reform, and a majority of people acknowledge racial bias in the system. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The bail, discovery, and speedy trial reforms that were passed last month in New York represent the most significant overhauls of the criminal justice system that the state has seen in decades—since the early 1970s when the current criminal procedure law was enacted.

Starting next year, tens of thousands of legally innocent New Yorkers will be spared the injustice of being trapped behind bars due to the whims of police and prosecutors. The new bail law guarantees pretrial release for those accused of low-level charges, including almost all misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. This means that the vast majority of New Yorkers charged with an offense will no longer be locked in jail simply because they can’t afford bail.

The new discovery law, one of the most progressive in the country, will ensure that defendants have access to vital case evidence early in the process, protecting them from predatory plea deals that have fueled the mass incarceration crisis.

The new discovery law, one of the most progressive in the country, will ensure that defendants have access to vital case evidence early in the process, protecting them from predatory plea deals that have fueled the mass incarceration crisis.

While New York was fortunate to have champions in the Senate and Assembly committed to decarceration, what the negotiation process revealed was the enormous influence that District Attorneys and their statewide association have over the legislative process.

Just as the Real Estate Board of New York has worked to squash tenant protections and a proposed surcharge on luxury homes, the District Attorneys Association of New York (DAASNY) has, for decades, operated quietly behind-the-scenes to preserve unchecked prosecutorial power and the mass jailing status quo.

DAASNY claim to be a professional trade organization, but their aggressive lobbying efforts suggest otherwise. For decades, the unequal playing field has favored prosecutors, allowing them to strongarm vulnerable people into plea deals and easy convictions, run up jail and prison populations even as crime rates fall, and pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

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As The Appeal notes, the first press story written about DAASNY, published in 1909, states their desire for political influence: “While the intentions of the legislators are of the best, they oftentimes enact laws… which embarrass the prosecuting attorneys of the state.”

But the tides of public opinion are shifting. A survey by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that 91% of people support criminal justice reform, and a majority of people acknowledge racial bias in the system. Across the country, a new wave of reform-minded District Attorneys are running on platforms of rolling back the “New Jim Crow” and promoting alternatives to incarceration. Importantly, local grassroots groups and criminal justice advocates are holding these DAs accountable to their commitments.

Some DAs and candidates for office are taking their platforms a step further and deciding to not subordinate themselves to the politics of their state’s DA association. In the Queens District Attorneys race, two of the frontrunners—Tiffany Caban and Rory Lancman--have said they will not join DAASNY if elected. Last year, Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner withdrew his office from the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA).

Unless District Attorneys associations change their ways, we will see more and more prosecutors decline membership to their organizations, as constituents call for their elected prosecutors to be accountable to the communities they serve, rather than the political agenda of what is essentially a prosecutorial “good old boys club.”

Transforming a system that is so deeply entrenched in our society is not easy. Most prosecutors want to keep it the way it is. Cities can elect progressive District Attorneys, but if those prosecutors are joining the same organizations that have stifled reform for decades, then all that will change are local practices—not the larger system. Standing up to their state associations is how District Attorneys can show that they’re serious about reform.

Rosemary Rivera

Rosemary Rivera, Co-Executive Director of Citizen Action of New York

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