July 9, 2015 – by David Rogers, Executive Director.
There are some serious problems we need to tackle in our criminal justice system, like dramatic prison growth and spending in the U.S. We are dumping billions of dollars into locking people up while ignoring the strategies best designed to create safe and healthy communities. Meanwhile, the racial disparity in sentencing and incarceration rates is one of the biggest drivers of inequality for communities of color in the country.
As Oregon’s legislative session just ended, I am pleased to see meaningful progress being made on criminal justice reform. The ACLU of Oregon was active in passing legislation to tackle racial profiling, reducing employment barriers for people with conviction histories, and helping to increase police accountability. This progress was the result of democracy in action: thousands of our members and allies reaching out to their legislators to advocate for smarter justice.
But there is an element of our democratic process that is seriously malnourished and it has a direct relationship to our ability shift criminal justice policies in the right direction. I’m talking about the election of District Attorneys.
Here in Oregon, our chief prosecutors in each county are elected by a vote of the people. Yet the public doesn’t normally engage District Attorneys as elected leaders who need to be held accountable to the values we hold about what a fair, unbiased, and smart criminal justice system looks like. This dynamic needs to change.
There are over 2400 elected prosecutors in America.
Only 4 percent are men of color and only 1 percent are women of color.
Oregon is one of only 14 states that have exclusively white elected prosecutors.
Do I think that racial diversity among district attorneys in and of itself will solve the deep-seated problems of racial disparity in our criminal justice system? No, it is not that simple. But is there likely a relationship between the lack of racial diversity among prosecutors and the fact that if you are black in Oregon you are 6 times more likely to end up in prison than a white person? Sure thing.
Let’s do a quick review of the power prosecutors have within the criminal justice system. They decide when to bring a case or whether to drop charges. They decided on the severity of the charge, for example whether it is a misdemeanor or felony. Most cases today are resolved through plea bargains, which means that prosecutors are deciding whether someone gets prison, jail, or probation and for how long. And to be clear, most of these decisions get made with very little public examination.
While legislators have the power to help pass smarter criminal justice policy, prosecutors have tremendous daily influence over our criminal justice system. Yet, what was most surprising about the research just released on elected prosecutors is that 85% of them run unopposed! Say what?
I am a big believer in democracy. And this seems to be a place where, as a society, our muscles have atrophied. It would be ludicrous to think that our elected district attorneys will not be a part of solving the problems within our criminal justice system given their high level of influence and involvement.
Our elected district attorneys should be prepared to talk about their efforts and policy positions just like other elected officials. As voters, we need to ask questions about who is running for these positions, and whether their values reflect our values. And we need to make more serious efforts so that all of our elected officials reflect the demographics of our communities. Perhaps, this new research is a reminder that we can engage DAs as part of the democratic process.