U.S.A: New breed of prosecutors embracing policies to end systemic injustice — By Mohamed Hamaludin

Some 2.2 million Americans are locked up in 6,849 prisons and jails, representing 21 percent of the world’s prisoners in a country with five percent of the world’s population.

For African Americans, the rate is more than five times that for European Americans; for African American women, twice the rate for European American women; their children are 32 percent of those arrested, 42 percent of those detained and 52 percent of those tried in criminal court.

The federal government and 27 states, including Florida, confine 128,063 of those inmates in private prisons run mainly by Core Civic and GEO Group. Those companies have said their goal is to make money.         

The Sentencing Project quoted the 2010 annual report from Core Civic, then known as Corrections Corporation, that makes this clear: “Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. This possible growth depends on a number of factors we cannot control, including crime rates and sentencing patterns in various jurisdictions and acceptance of privatization.”

Core Civic conceded that its business could be adversely affected “by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.”

As a result, “private prison companies at times have joined with lawmakers, corporations, and interest groups to advocate for privatization through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to work on model legislation impacting sentencing policy and prison privatization.”

But the more than two million Americans are incarcerated partly because one or more of the 800,000 law enforcement officers working in about 17,985 police agencies arrested them. Many belong to unions whose activities have long since expanded from labor issues to influencing law enforcement policies through political action.

The police, though, merely collect evidence and file charges and the prisons are the warehouses. It is the nation’s 2,300 prosecutors who decide the fate of the accused and who almost routinely support the police and the “tough on crime” crowd.

Take the case of Ronald Greene of Monroe, Louisiana, died while in custody. Police body camera footage shows state troopers punching, tasing and dragging Greene face down across the pavement while he was handcuffed. Greene responded, “Yes, sir” and “Okay, okay, sir,” to a trooper’s order to “lay on your belly.” Still, the trooper dragged Greene by his shackled ankles and knelt on his back, according to media reports.

The footage was withheld from the public for two years and released only recently after pressure from the family and activists. Police said they gave the footage to prosecutors in August 2019. However, “prosecutors apparently watched the video of Greene being brutalized and made the decision not to file a single criminal charge against any of the troopers,” Mary F. Moriarty, a former long-time public defender in Minnesota, wrote in The Washington Post.

Indeed, prosecutors hold enormous power in the criminal justice system, especially in felony cases involving plea bargains. “They basically determine the charge, the sentence and the terms of confinement,” college professor Moustafa Bayoumi pointed out in The Guardian.

But some prosecutors are bucking the trend. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner won re-election on May 18, despite a frontal attack by the local police union and some prosecutors. Krasner left no doubt during his first term that he is part of a new breed of prosecutors and he won twice as many votes as his opponent.

In California, three other prosecutors are also taking a different approach to the job. They include Chesa Boudin of San Francisco, who has said, “Politics is often defined or understood as the art of making a deal. But I think, at its best, it is the art of making possible tomorrow that which we can’t even imagine today.”

Boudin and fellow Democrats George Gaston of Los Angeles and Diana Becton of Contra Costa and Republican Tori Verber Salazar of San Joaquin formed the Prosecutors Alliance of California last September as “a progressive alternative to the more conservative California District Attorneys Association,” The Nation’s Sasha Abramsky reported.

Gaston believes that “being ‘tough’ on crime isn’t the same as being smart on crime; that investing more in mental health services, education systems and community infrastructure will prove to be more effective than simply adding decades to felons’ sentences,” Abramsky wrote

In Oregon, voters elected Mike Schmidt as DA for Oregon’s Multnomah County, where Portland is located. His platform included “opposition to mandatory sentences and an emphasis on harm reduction,” Abramsky reported. Like Krasner, he won despite opposition by police unions and even attorneys in his office.

In Washington state, Seattle’s City Attorney Pete Holmes seeks sentences of no more than 364 days for misdemeanors – one day short of the threshold for deporting a non-citizen. Others include Kim Foxx in Chicago, Jose Garcia in Austin, Texas, Marian Ryan in Middlesex County, Mass., Kimberly Gardner in St. Louis City, Wesley Bell in St. Louis County and Marilyn Mosby in Baltimore.

“The strategies commonly used by progressive DAs include declining to prosecute a host of nonviolent crimes, expanding treatment programs instead of prison sentences, developing alternatives to incarceration, launching restorative justice initiatives, refusing to prosecute cases brought by cops with a history of dishonesty, abolishing the death penalty and life sentences without parole (so-called death by incarceration) and ending cash bail,” Bayoumi reported.

These ”progressives” are still a very small part of the total number of prosecutors but they seem bent on choking off the prison pipeline and playing a role in making criminal justice reform possible. More of them are needed.

Mohamed Hamaludin is a Guyana-born journalist who worked for several years at The Guyana Chronicle in the 1970s and on publications in the Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands before emigrating in 1984 to the United States, where he worked at The Miami Times, the Miami Herald and the South Florida Times.  Though now retired, he writes a column for The South Florida Times (sfltimes.com) in which the above column first appeared. He may be reached at hamal1942@gmail.com.

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