In a speech this week to the Fraternal Order of Police, Attorney General William Barr lamented “the emergence in some of our large cities of district attorneys who style themselves as ‘social justice’ reformers, who spend their time undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook and refusing to enforce the law.”
On the evening that one of us (Parisa Dehghani-Tafti) won the Democratic nomination for commonwealth’s attorney in Arlington, Delaware, Todd Gilbert, the Virginia House GOP leader, similarly tweeted: “These social justice prosecutors will inevitably get their citizens hurt, robbed, burglarized or much worse because of their approach to crime.”
There is a vast distance between what Barr and other opponents of progress in criminal justice say reform prosecutors believe and what we actually believe. Allow us to summarize.
We may differ in the details, but as prosecutors committed to reforming our justice system, we believe: Not every social problem should be criminalized. We shouldn’t use cash bail to keep poor people in jail when similarly situated but wealthier people can pay to go home. We should aim to help victims recover from the trauma of crime and listen to what will help them heal, instead of using their pain to obtain the harshest possible sentences.
We believe that the default approach to children who make mistakes should be diversion and education rather than incarceration. People suffering from mental illnesses or substance-use disorders should be offered treatment rather than jail. It is unfair to saddle a new generation with criminal records for simple marijuana possession.
We also believe that no system can achieve justice if it tolerates racial and class disparities. Citizens returning from incarceration should be afforded the right to vote and to be productive members of our community. And the death penalty has no place in a civilized society.
These beliefs clearly hold appeal to many voters. They are also backed by decades of research and data. But they certainly do not, as Barr cavalierly claims, “undercut the police or let criminals off the hook.”
To the contrary, the election of reform prosecutors leads to a decrease in unfair prosecutorial practices with no increase in crime. Between 2007 and 2017, 34 states reduced incarceration without a resulting increase in crime.
In Philadelphia, reform District Attorney Larry Krasner has reduced the jail population by about 30 percent, reduced the length of sentences by 46 percent and declined to prosecute certain categories of simple marijuana possession, all without a significant rise in serious crimes.
In her first year in office, Boston’s District Attorney Rachael Rollins has dismissed 40 percent more cases of petty crimes than her predecessor, permitting prosecutors to focus on serious crimes and address “cold” cases.
In Baltimore, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s decision to stop prosecuting marijuana use will free up resources to address an unacceptably high murder rate. And, in St. Louis County, Missouri, one of us (Wesley Bell) has reduced the jail population by 20 percent in six months while expanding diversion treatment for low-level offenders and working with the 55 area police departments to streamline officers’ interactions with the prosecutor’s office.
Far more disturbing than Barr’s gross caricature of reform prosecutors is the audience to whom he addressed his divisive rhetoric. By falsely claiming to police officers that those of us elected to maintain public safety are “undercutting” them and “refusing to enforce the law,” Barr aims to suggest that we are a menace to the voters who back us and stoke doubts among police (many of whom have joined prosecutors in the call for change), encouraging them to resist criminal-justice reform. This is nothing short of sabotage of the work of reform prosecutors by the head of the Justice Department.
Following the standoff that left six police officers injured, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania leveled baseless attacks at Krasner, claiming he created “a new culture of disrespect for law enforcement” while “making excuses for criminals.”
Many criminal-justice leaders across the nation have disavowed this federal attempt at sabotaging local reform, and voters also know better. We are dedicated to safety and justice. We understand that our current criminal legal system throws away too many people, breaks up too many families, destroys too many communities and wastes too much money. And we refuse to accept that a wealthy democracy cannot figure out how to keep its people safe without criminalizing as many things as possible, prosecuting as hard as possible and punishing people for as long as possible.
— Dehghani-Tafti is the Democratic nominee for commonwealth’s attorney in Arlington, Virginia. Gonzalez is the Nueces County, Texas, district attorney. Bell is the county prosecutor for St. Louis County, Missouri.