The vast majority of elected prosecutors in America are white, particularly white men, which stands as a barrier to equal justice and an engine of mass incarceration. For years, overzealous prosecutors have maintained a tough-on-crime stance with overcharging, over-prosecuting and plea bargaining — which account for 95 percent of all criminal convictions — and have ruined lives in the process. However, a new generation of reform-minded Black district attorneys, state’s attorneys and county prosecutors emanating from the community has infiltrated the white-dominated field, charged with the task of changing a criminal justice system that has disproportionately impacted Black people.
A most recent example of the change underway is in Missouri’s St. Louis County, where Wesley Bell, the newly minted and first Black county prosecutor in his jurisdiction, terminated assistant prosecutor Kathi Alizadeh. Alizadeh was responsible for the grand jury that failed to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown. Bell — who had been elected to the Ferguson City Council in 2015 in the aftermath of the Brown killing and the ensuing protests — unseated 28-year incumbent Robert McCulloch in the August 2018 Democratic primary for the top prosecutor in St. Louis County.
Among the new policies that Bell has instituted are refusing to overcharge defendants in an effort to pressure them to admit guilt, no longer coercing witnesses to testify, and requiring prosecutors to share with the defense the entire contents of a criminal case file. Further, Bell will no longer prosecute cases involving fewer than 100 grams of marijuana, will not seek cash bail in misdemeanor cases, and will not prosecute child support cases.
Similarly, in Boston, Rachael Rollins became the first Black woman district attorney in Massachusetts when she was recently elected as Suffolk District Attorney. This after 16-year incumbent Dan Conley decided not to seek reelection. Rollins came into office with a promise to shake up the existing order by decriminalizing a number of offenses and viewing jail only as a last resort. “With respect to these 15 misdemeanors that are nonviolent, more quality-of-life crimes … I believe we can hold people accountable without sending them to jail,” Rollins said.
The former federal prosecutor has faced resistance from law enforcement groups, including the National Police Association — which has filed an ethics complaint against her for what they call “reckless disregard” of the state’s laws — and the Boston Police Patrolman’s Association for declining to prosecute numerous nonviolent property offenses. Her list of 15 crimes, which she formulated after discussions with judges and prosecutors, includes property damage, shoplifting, drug possession and possession with intent to distribute, have caused her critics to label her as soft on crime. In addition, Rollins’ reform-mindedness has extended to immigration, with an investigation of ICE officers arresting and taking undocumented immigrants into custody during court hearings for matters unrelated to their immigration status.
On the state level, New York City public advocate Letitia James made history when she became the first Black and first woman attorney general of New York. As the top law enforcement official in the nation’s financial capital and the home of Donald Trump, James threatens to become as much of a threat to the “illegitimate president” and his family members for their alleged financial dealings as special counsel Robert Mueller. James promises broad investigations into Trump. And former U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress and former chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, recently won as Minnesota attorney general, running on a populist platform as a civil rights champion who would take on Trump directly for his excesses, and a protector of the rights of workers and consumers, and the environment.
These newly elected Black prosecutors come on the heels of other progressive Black district attorneys coming to power, such as Orange-Osceola County State Attorney Aramis Ayala, who opposes the death penalty in her home state of Florida; Baltimore State Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who indicted the officers in the killing of Freddie Gray, and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who has sought justice for the wrongfully convicted in Chicago.
In Philadelphia, former civil rights and criminal defense attorney Larry Krasner received the support of Black Lives Matter to become district attorney. A white lawyer who had sued the police 75 times and was elected on a criminal justice platform against the death penalty, mass incarceration and civil asset forfeiture, Krasner disrupted the normal order of things when he cleaned house and immediately fired 31 career staff after assuming his new role.
A look at the national landscape brings into focus the importance of having Black prosecutors in office. According to the Reflective Democracy Campaign, 95 percent of the more than 2,400 elected prosecutors across the country are white — 85 percent of whom run unopposed — and 79 percent are white men. Meanwhile, only 4 percent are men of color, and 1 percent are women of color. Further, 85 percent of lawyers are white, and judges are a predominantly white-male proposition, in a criminal justice system in which Black people are disproportionately and predominantly ensnared. The most powerful actors in the criminal justice system, prosecutors decide whom to charge, whom to send to prison and for how long. The failure and unwillingness of prosecutors to indict police officers for the killing of Black people in custody has brought the role of this position in perspective.
The rise of the Black reform-minded district attorney in a number of jurisdictions is evidence that things are starting to change, as the effort to dismantle mass incarceration and remedy the racial injustices of the legal system begins in earnest.