Millions of people have taken to the streets calling for an end to racial injustice and mass incarceration. It is now clear that they will also vote. Just last month, a reform-minded district attorney candidate who pledged to stop prosecuting many minor crimes in Manhattan took the lead in the primaries. New York City is not alone. Voters across the country are nodding to prosecutors who are pushing for an end to mass incarceration for those with tougher anti-crime agendas.
Despite these long overdue changes, some are pushing for reform by promoting an unfortunate and imprecise narrative. As violent crime increased in some cities across the country, Police Union Leader and persistent officials, including then-US Attorney General William Barr, falsely declared that criminal law reform was to blame and blamed the so-called progressive prosecutors. This misguided and partisan cue ignored the much more important fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down public safety institutions and plunged countless Americans into despair.
On the other hand, violent crime in communities with and without competent reform prosecutors increased at a similar rate.
Fortunately, voters saw through these false claims, and reform-minded prosecutors across the country won decisive victories, which offers a powerful lesson: communities reject fear-based narratives for evidence-based solutions and go to the polls hungry for systemic transformation.
It is time that the President and national leaders heeded this call and invested in prosecutor innovation that can make the criminal justice system more just and just for all communities and make America safer.
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The Biden administration must build on this community-based movement and follow a pledge from the President to create a 21st Century Prosecutor Task Force modeled on President Barack Obama’s 21st Century Police Task Force.
Reform-minded prosecutors now run offices in major cities and rural counties in every region of the country and collectively represent a significant segment of Americans.
This task force and its work would provide the main opportunity for the White House to influence criminal justice reform. Local law enforcement is driving our world’s leading incarceration rate and is responsible for nearly 85% of the millions imprisoned in America.
By providing the country’s 2,400 local and state prosecutors with a deeper understanding of the harm of mass incarceration and data-driven mechanisms for change, the government could push our criminal justice system to create more equitable policies and address the inherent systemic injustices.
Dozens of national criminal justice leaders (including the three of us) have described “our nation’s decades of anti-crime practices” as “an abomination for justice.” These practices were also an abomination for safety.
We need promising innovations in law enforcement. We need to catalyze new ideas from experts and incentivize reforms that local and state prosecutors emulate. A task force would help ensure that new prosecutors trying to correct inequalities and injustices do not have to reinvent the wheel.
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Additionally, a task force would promote the efficiency of precious federal resources and help ensure the billions of dollars our federal government puts into local justice systems each year are turned into strategies that actually work.
Voters from communities hardest hit by mass incarceration know that short-term, purely punitive approaches to public safety – such as incarcerating people who commit crimes for decades – can increase crime in the long run. They know that every year we also traumatize children who are separated from their parents or loved ones through the disproportionate incarceration of black and brown, mostly poor, people.
The practice traps families in poverty and causes imprisoned people to fail after their release – none of this promotes public safety. And they have seen this ineffective system waste huge sums of money that could instead be invested in education, jobs, health care and housing to stop crime in the first place.
Manhattan voters had a crowded field of eight candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for district attorney. They chose a reformer who promised not only to stop prosecuting petty offenses, but also to abolish cash deposits and invest in restorative justice programs.
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Shortly before, many feared that Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, whose daring efforts to end the mass incarceration had attracted endless hostility from the local police union, would lose his re-election. When the result came, however, Krasner had more than twice as many votes as his opponent.
And last year reform-minded prosecutors in Chicago and elsewhere won re-election vigorously despite fierce opposition from police unions.
With each election cycle, voters seem to be paying more attention to the races of prosecutors and recognizing the power of that office to realize a new vision of justice. And the trends suggest that this movement will only keep growing. Biden can help plan the future of law enforcement – and the entire criminal justice system – by investing now, building a task force that brings high-level leadership and focus on law enforcement, and brings innovation to every corner of the country.
Keith Ellison is the Minnesota attorney general. Miriam Aroni Krinsky is the managing director of Fair and Just Prosecution. Joyce White Vance is the former US attorney in Alabama and a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law. You are among 100 prosecutors who have signed a letter to the president asking him to set up a task force for the prosecution of the 21st century.