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District Attorneys and criminal justice reform: A necessary partnership

The National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) held a panel discussion on January 23, titled “The Role of the 21st Century Prosecutor.”  NCCD President Alex Busansky facilitated a conversation, between San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, on recent justice reforms in their respective jurisdictions.  The topic is of particular relevance to reform-minded criminal justice professionals, given the transformational role prosecutors can play.

District Attorneys have innumerable responsibilities, which include preventing crime, curbing recidivism, and protecting their communities.  How they accomplish said priorities is unique to their personal leadership and the organizational culture of their office.  Prosecutors not only have final discretion as relates to charging alleged offenders, but also on how law enforcement interacts with the patchwork of groups in their jurisdiction.  Given this authority, they seemingly embody an intersection of policy and practice.

Philadelphia and San Francisco each face considerable challenges with crime and rehabilitation.  Yet both DA Williams and DA Gascón represent an opportunity for positive change.  DA Williams partly attributes his successful election in 2005 to a willingness to discuss reform.  His campaign slogan drove home this core message: “smart on crime, not just tough.”  He noted that while Pennsylvania has 7 times the rate of incarceration than it did 30 years ago, it has not made the state 7 times safer. 

DA Williams emphasized the role of empirical data to answer whether his office was promoting justice.  DA Gascón concurred, noting the importance of data metrics as part of an overall restorative justice model.  His office utilizes an Alternative Sentencing Planner charged to evaluate what course will best ensure offender reintegration back into their community.  Other tools include split sentencing and neighborhood courts. 

Prosecutorial reform requires a change in both policy and organizational culture.  DA Williams highlighted this process with a discussion of Philadelphia’s marijuana possession laws.  Law enforcement spent considerable time and resources on these low-level offenses.  In response, DA Williams established the Small Amounts of Marijuana (SAM) program in June 2010.  SAM provides offenders with an opportunity to enroll in an educational class, rather than face prosecution.  DA Williams believes the SAM program embodies a philosophy, where “certainty of punishment, not severity, changes behavior.”  One estimate of the program measured savings at $2 million in one year.

A final theme in the conversation related to community involvement and trust as a necessary feature for sensible enforcement.  DA Gascón illustrated this point with a discussion of immigration enforcement.  He noted that prosecutors need victims and witnesses to feel comfortable engaging with the justice system, which may prove challenging if individuals fear deportation.  His office works to provide immigration relief for victims and witnesses, when available. 

Additionally, the San Francisco DA’s office is working to address racial disparity in prosecution, by partnering with the Vera Institute to study the problem.  CJCJ has previously reported on the disproportionate arrest of racial minorities, in San Francisco, as relates to drug crimes.  DA Williams concurred; noting the public must think the judicial system is fair.  This legitimacy informs the perception of juries, witnesses, and victims. 

District Attorneys, particularly those elected, are risk-averse to innovative reforms that challenge the pervasive “tough on crime” mentality.  NCCD President Busansky noted, “A great path for job security is to do what everyone else does.”  Given the considerable cost of such intransigence, both District Attorneys show how innovative leadership can improve public safety and empower local communities.

Keywords: best practices, Brian Goldstein, prosecutors

Posted in Blog, Sentencing

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