Criminal Justice Reformers Seek to Use the Power of District Attorney’s Office to Tackle Mass Incarceration

June 26, 2019
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In an upset, public defender Tiffany Cabán won the Queens District Attorney race on June 26th. Supporters of Cabán feel her victory promises a progressive shift in the enforcement of laws in Queens. Cabán has focused on “decarceration.” It’s also part of a broader trend of progressive and criminal justice reform minded DAs challenging mass incarceration.

In 2017 civil rights attorney Larry Krasner, who built his reputation on suing the police, won the Philadelphia District Attorney’s election. He campaigned on this background, focusing on issues like ending cash bail, and challenging police brutality. In some respect Krasner has been successful, pushing to decriminalize most drug possession, and outlining entirely new policies for prosecutors in Philadelphia. In other ways, like finally getting rid of cash bail, Krasner’s office has stalled. Controversy erupted when Krasner announced he would appeal a judge’s ruling restoring Mumia Abu Jamal, a former Black Panther and journalist, right to appeal his controversial 1982 conviction for killing a police officer. After public pressure, Krassner reversed course. Still, the path that Krasner took while fighting mass incarceration has helped lead the way for progressive reformers in other cities as well.

Following Krasner’s victory, the 2018 elections saw other victories for progressive DAs such as Rachael Rollins in Boston.and Wesley Bell in St. Louis. Crucial aspects of their victories were advocating for less prosecution of “low-level crimes” and holding police accountable. A variety of progressive DAs have grown out of opposition to police violence, For example, Larry Krasner sued the police 75 times, and Wesley Bell was a Ferguson Council member who defeated the prosecutor who investigated the death of Michael Brown. 

Some criminal justice reformers have argued that DAs are key to combating mass incarceration. For example, over 400,000 people are in jail because they are unable to pay for bail. DAs have the ability to significantly curb those held for cash bail, or to recommend no cash bail at all. In the US, DAs have significant prosecutorial discretion. In the case of Dallas DA Creuzot, refusing to prosecute low-level crimes, such as petty theft and minimal possession of marijuana offers an alternative when legislative action stalls.

Cabán represents perhaps the most ambitious version of reformer DAs. She calls for an end to cash bail, the decriminalization of sex work, prosecuting abusive landlords, and an end civil to asset forfiture among other promises. The result of this would be to shift the focus of the prosecutor from working-class and poor people to maleficent practices by wealthy people and corporations. 

Additionally, Cabán calls for community advisory boards to have oversight of law enforcement. Often times progressive DAs have found themselves in opposition to the local police union. Krasner released a list of “Do not call” cops considered unreliable, and has fired 41 prosecutors that failed to live up to the reforms he has been pushing in office. In New York City, police are often reported for bias behavior. In serious cases of police violence prosecutors willing to be relaxed on police brutality and misconduct are a serious barrier to demanding justice for victims of the police.

Sex work decriminalization became an important part of Cabán’s campaign, and her victory marks a considerable win for the movement to decriminalize sex work across the country. Activists pushing for sex work decriminalization became a part of the coalition that elected  Cabán, with Decrim NY playing an important role. The movement to decriminalize sex work resurged alongside increasingly punitive laws like The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA-FOSTA) which tightened the ability of sex workers to use online vendors. 

While criminal justice reform has been a bipartisan goal, the recent spate of criminal reformers turned DAs have viewed themselves as part of a left-wing movement. For example, Cabán assembled a coalition of progressive and socialist organizations like the Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America in order to win the election. 

Cabán is part of an array of criminal justice reformers using District Attorney offices to push for major changes. What will happen to the larger movement only time will tell.