There are many problems with America’s criminal justice system. One significant area that receives little attention is the prosecutor’s office. It is one of the most powerful elements of the criminal justice system, yet it is subject to very little real oversight. Sure, most district attorneys and state’s attorneys are elected, but that may be as much part of the problem as is the tremendous power they exercise.
Prosecutors are often elected based on how “tough” they are, and that toughness is typically measured by one simple number: the number of convictions they secure. They are not graded on how appropriately they charge crimes or the types of crimes they charge, because at the end of the day, if the prosecutor does not charge someone, then it must not have been a crime?
A DA who fails to secure sufficient convictions or the “right” convictions, may suddenly find himself challenged in an election. “He,” because prosecutors are 92.65 percent male. In addition, they are 80.56 percent white. Given their electorate is often uninterested in subtle distinctions and finds “coddling” criminals abhorrent, they frequently encourage in a type of “round up the usual suspects” behavior and convict them.
The legislature has often been complicit, crafting ever more draconian sentences and ever more criminal offenses. This has led to the current complaints that the system is biased against individuals of color and that these policies have caused many of the issues associated with mass incarceration and the disproportionate killing of black men by police.
As long as they win convictions, they can stay in office. In the last election cycle, 73 percent ran unopposed. One example, a prosecutor in Florida, has been in office since 1976 and will run unopposed this year. He has touted his high rate of convictions, but perhaps no longer realizes what that has cost his district. Police in his district issue citations for driving, biking and walking while black. These stops are essentially pretext, allowing an officer to then search for other potential charges.
New York City experienced much of this disparate treatment during the era of Stop and Frisk and Broken Windows. Prosecutors have the ability to facilitate this behavior or stop it.
Arrest and incarceration can have a disastrous effect on an individual and a community. Prosecutors have an immense amount of power to affect criminal justice and how it applies to real people, and for the last few decades that power has not been used for a positive effect.