Progressive prosecutors are not 'cops' - here's why

Progressive prosecutors are not 'cops'  -  here's why
News & Politics

As Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) receives more and more media attention these days as a potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, she has staunch Democratic supporters and vituperative right-wing detractors. 

Since 2017, when she succeeded Sen. Barbara Boxer, she’s garnered national attention after being seen in high-profile Senate committee hearings, effectively and forcefully questioning administration officials such as Jeff SessionsKristjen Nielson, and Supreme Court nominee (at the time) Brett Kavanaugh, which earned her high marks with many Democrats, and the fury of Republicans.

It was clear that in those hearings she used skills honed over the years as a prosecutor in the San Francisco District Attorney's Office, and the City Attorney of San Francisco's office; as district attorney of San Francisco; and as California's attorney general.

Though her continuation on the Senate Judiciary Committee was in question, it was announced this week that she will keep her seat, which means that we can look forward to her participation in hearings in the coming years. 

As a former prosecutor, @SenKamalaHarris has strived every day for a more fair judicial system for all Americans. I’m proud that we successfully fought to keep her seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) December 11, 2018

I’m not bothered by the attacks aimed her way by racist, misogynist Democrat-haters—they are to be expected. Especially since she is a black woman, who is also Indian-American. 

What I am disturbed by is a dismissive critique aimed at her by folks who call themselves “left,” many of whom are not Democrats. It boils down to, “I won’t vote for her, ever—because ‘she’s a cop.’

First time I saw this, I shrugged. After seeing repeats, I got pissed. Some of the people dropping those lugs claim to support #BlackLivesMatter, wear t-shirts with pics of black and brown people killed by racist cops on them, and yet they seem to have zero consciousness about the necessity of diversifying the ranks of prosecutors to change the criminal justice system—a key element of criminal justice reform.

I almost posted a major rant—then I decided it would be better to calm down and talk about why this conflation of “prosecutor” with “cop” is a bad idea, and anti-progressive. (So this is only a semi-rant.)

 “She’s a cop” is a pretty ignorant attack. There are any number of critiques one can level at any Democratic politician, Harris among them. I’m not here today to make a case for her candidacy, though I want to be open about the fact that she’s on my short list as a favorite to run in 2020, and I’d like to see her in either the top spot or as the veep candidate. 

My feeling is, if this can be lobbed at Harris, it will also apply to ongoing efforts in many communities across the U.S. to tear down the “white brick wall” in DA’s offices, undermining the need and efforts to elect more progressives, and especiallyprogressive women and men of color, to those positions. 

This is what I want to see more of:

Here we are in Houston, Texas - the Class of 2019 Newly Elected Progressive Prosecutors! Disrupting the cycle of violence requires innovative thinking and teamwork. We will make change across the country, don't forget these faces.

— Rachael Rollins Suffolk County DA-Elect (@Rollins4DA) December 6, 2018

Give a listen to Adam Foss, former assistant district attorney in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office (SCDAO) in Boston, Massachusetts, and founder of Prosecutor Impact.

Founded in 2016, Prosecutor Impact is a not-for-profit organization built around the mission of improving community safety in the United States through a better understanding of the most important actor in the criminal justice system: the criminal prosecutor.

Our belief is that through education, training, and improved access to technology for the American prosecutor, we can improve results in our communities.

There will never be a Law & Order episode about arraignments, but the decision a prosecutor makes about whether, or how much, to charge you sets up everything that follows. @adamjohnfoss unpacks prosecutor power on our latest New Thinking podcast:

— Center for Court Innovation (@courtinnovation) December 5, 2018

When a kid commits a crime, the US justice system has a choice: prosecute to the full extent of the law, or take a step back and ask if saddling young people with criminal records is the right thing to do every time. In this searching talk, Adam Foss, a prosecutor with the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office in Boston, makes his case for a reformed justice system that replaces wrath with opportunity, changing people's lives for the better instead of ruining them.

There is a lot of insightful data available examining the role of prosecutors.  

NEW: Report from researchers at Florida International University and @LoyolaChicago offers insights into prosecutorial behavior, attitudes, and decision making.

— Safety and Justice (@safety_justice) December 4, 2018

This report is the first in a series of publications resulting from a partnership between prosecutors and researchers to promote more effective, just, and transparent decision making in prosecution. It is based on the results of 78 interviews and 275 surveys with the prosecutors from Chicago; Jacksonville and Tampa, FL; and Milwaukee, WI. Prosecutors were asked about their views on what constitutes success and priorities, values of community engagement, and causes of racial/ ethnic disparities and prosecutors’ role in reducing them.

Two subsequent reports focusing on (1) racial and ethnic disparities in prosecution and (2) prosecutorial performance indicators will follow in 2019.

This 2016 report from the Stanford Criminal Justice Center is well worth a read:

Diversity in Prosecutors’ Offices: Views from the Front Line

In July 2015, the Stanford Criminal Justice Center (SCJC) released a report detailing the racial and gender demographics of prosecutors’ offices across California. That study was conducted in response to events that renewed longstanding concerns regarding the treatment of racial minorities in the criminal justice system. In particular, national protests followed failures to indict White police officers implicated in the deaths of two unarmed Black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York. Since the release of the SCJC’s first report, White officers implicated in the death of Tamir Rice, a Black 12year-old, were also not indicted. The treatment of these officers by White prosecutors stands in stark contrast to the indictment of officers implicated in the death in Maryland of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man. The States Attorney in Baltimore was a Black woman. Given the concern over the treatment of racial minorities in the criminal justice system, the lack of information on the demographics of prosecutors’ offices seemed especially concerning.

More on the report:

Study: District attorney offices lack diversity

Authors of the study, from the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, note that recent racially charged events in Ferguson, Staten Island, N.Y., and Baltimore, Md., have refocused attention on the treatment of racial minorities by police and prosecutors. Last week marked the anniversary of the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was killed by Ferguson police officer in what federal investigators later said was a struggle over the officer’s gun.

Brown’s death, and other incidents involving confrontations with police or deaths in custody, sparked demonstrations and conversations across the country about race and criminal justice in the United States.

The authors of the Stanford study say they are the first to make data about race and gender composition within California prosecutors’ ranks available to the public, information they contend is critical for anyone concerned about the fairness of criminal justice in the state.

“Because prosecutors hold so much power and exercise so much discretion, it is cause for concern if they do not reflect the diversity of the public,” the authors say in the report. “Thus, one of the many questions raised by the Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray cases is: How representative are prosecutors of the communities that they serve?

In 15 states, all elected prosecutors are white. Learn about prosecutor demographics at

— Pilar Weiss (@PilarWeiss) July 7, 2015

95% of Prosecutors Are White and They Treat Blacks Worse

About one in three black men in the United States can expect to be incarcerated at some point in their lives. Black men comprise 6% of the U.S. population but 35% of the prison population.

Along the way, they will meet a lot of white people.

Local police forces are, on average, 88 percent white. Places like Ferguson, Missouri, are but the most extreme examples of nearly all-white police departments patrolling majority-nonwhite precincts.

But the white cop is only the first responder. Throughout the criminal justice system, defendants will repeatedly encounter disproportionately white—sometimes all-white—agents of the law. Most importantly, the charges against them will be set by 95 percentwhite prosecutors, elected on state and local levels. In fact, two-thirds of states that elect their prosecutors have no black prosecutors at all.

Since prosecutors convict 86 percent of the prison population, this means a nearly all-white cadre of attorneys is putting a disproportionately black cohort of defendants in jail.

Now, do all these statistics really matter? Sure, it looks bad that prosecutors are almost entirely white, but that doesn't make them racist, right?

In fact, the racial divide among prosecutors correlates with how they unequally treat black and white defendants.

My latest: Some 95% of elected prosecutors are white. Black lawyers, justice groups & Soros want to change that.

— Yamiche Alcindor (@Yamiche) November 5, 2016

I have read comments from people who can’t seem to handle any of this, and who insist that it is somehow “racist” to push for diversity. They then drag the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words into the debate and spout about “content of character.” This is a denial of the reality that justice in America is not colorblind, and is inherently racist in execution. 

Does that mean that only prosecutors who are black or people of color can do the job fairly?

No. But it does mean that there will be a better chance of having DAs who have a different set of life experiences. 

Lack of Black Prosecutors Afflicts Black Communities

...lack of diversity in prosecutorial offices across the nation is seen as having a major impact on how justice is dealt out. Legal experts tend to agree that the position of prosecutor is the most powerful in the criminal justice system. Local prosecutors have the power to bring or drop charges in criminal matters, recommend sentencing, and almost solely decide the accountability of police under their jurisdiction. Benjamin L Crump, a lawyer who represented  Trayvon Martin’s family after their son’s killing said “[electing prosecutor’s] may have a more profound effect on your life than any national office will have, because this is going to determine whether your children get trumped-up charges and the words ‘felony conviction’ on their backs for the rest of their lives or, even worse, if they are killed in cold blood and in broad daylight, no one will be held accountable.”

With the history Black people have with the criminal justice system, there has been a rise in the interest many have taken to elect Black prosecutors. Former NAACP President and Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous said having more Black prosecutors is needed because prosecution is a “key lever of power.” In the vast majority of cases where police officers are convicted of a crime, it is by a local prosecutor. Even though African- Americans make up less than 5% of prosecutors, they represent more than 50% of cases where police have been charged with murder. Black prosecutors are also more likely to recommend diversion programs as opposed to time in prison.

First, there are few Black lawyers at all. According to the American Bar Association, in 2017 85% of lawyers in the United States are white. The pool for potential Black prosecutors isn’t large. Even with that, the goal of being a prosecutor is not on the minds of many African-American law students. Melba Pearson, former President of the National Black Prosecutors Association says that among Black law students, the position of prosecutor is seen as “the means or the vehicle to oppress others. Why be a part of that oppression?”

Despite this, many criminal justice reform advocates see electing African-American, progressive prosecutors as a pivotal step to ensuring justice in Black communities of America. They argue that systemic racism permeates throughout prosecutors’ offices and that has to change because that lack of diversity is contributing to the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. “The culture of prosecution has been really hostile to people of color,” said Bryan Stevenson, founder of the legal aid organization Equal Justice Initiative. “You’ve got offices that have been run primarily by white men and they’ve had priorities that did not serve communities of color.”

Things are starting to change.  We had a key primary win by Wesley Bell, a member of the Ferguson City Council, in Missouri, back in August.

“95% of elected prosecutors are white, & 79% are male. Only 1% of prosecutors are women of color. The majority of prosecutors — 85%— run for election unopposed. They are rarely punished for misconduct, & a 1976 ruling gives them immunity from civil suits.”

— GodisRivera (@GodisRivera) August 8, 2018

That was followed by his election win in November.

Congratulations, Wesley Bell (@Bell4STL)! We're glad that you're supporting criminal justice reform in Missouri, and will institute policies to reverse the over-policing and over-incarceration of Black communities in St. Louis. The #BlueWave continues on!

— MoveOn (@MoveOn) November 7, 2018

Wesley Bell's 57 percent to 43 percent victory over St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch is the latest win for the Black Lives Matter movement, continuing its shift from protests to local politics.

— Chicago Tribune (@chicagotribune) August 11, 2018

I look forward to seeing more of this. Rather than discouraging young attorneys of color from making change from the inside, we need to encourage them—not disparage them. The same negative attitudes toward “joining the system of oppression” are used to convince our young folks not to vote.

Do we live in an oppressive system? Yes. Do we live with systemic racism? Another yes from me. Do we turn our backs, throw our hands in the air and give up, waiting for the revolution to be televised? 

I vote no. 

So drop the she’s a cop or he’s a cop crap.

It’s counter-productive and serves only to exacerbate the problems we face. 

End of semi-rant.

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