America, the land of the free. A nation guided by the principle of liberty and justice for all. Where we all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Inspiring ideals, but the reality of life in America, especially if you are Black, Latinx, or poor, is more complicated. Because today America is home to more prisoners than any other nation on earth.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
From 2008 to 2016, 35 states cut crime while simultaneously cutting their incarceration rate! That’s amazing news, and it also proves what reformers and researchers have been saying for years: putting people behind bars for low-level, nonviolent offenses does not make us safer. But if we want to truly transform this broken system, then we need to focus on a group of people you may not know much about: prosecutors.
Racial Bias Is Baked In
Even though our overall prison population has begun to decline, the numbers remain disturbing. We have only 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population. Not only that, racial bias clearly plays a huge role in who we lock up: people of color make up 60% of our prison population but only 30% of our overall population.
We didn’t become a nation of prisoners by accident. And we all need to recognize what’s behind the targeting of Black and Latinx people and their communities by police and prosecutors: systemic racism.
- Black people are 75% more likely than white people to be charged with a crime that includes a mandatory minimum sentence.
- Black men routinely receive longer jail sentences than white men for the same crimes.
- Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men; Latinos are almost three times as likely.
- Black people and white people use illegal drugs at similar rates, but Black people are imprisoned for drug crimes almost six times more often.
The list goes on. Any efforts at reform must address the racism found at every level of the criminal justice system.
The Critical Role of Prosecutors
Prosecutors are in a unique position to do something about that built-in bias—in fact, they’re the key to transforming the entire system. But maybe you’re wondering, What are prosecutors and what do they actually do? We’re happy to help:
- Prosecutors are elected to office (in all but four states).
- They almost always run unopposed, and incumbents almost always win reelection.
- They are overwhelmingly white.
- They are overwhelmingly male.
- Of the country’s more than 2,400 elected prosecutors, only 1% are women of color.
In our criminal justice system, prosecutors have an enormous amount of influence over what happens to people who have been arrested:
- Prosecutors determine which crime to charge people with, or whether to charge them at all.
- Judges regularly listen to their advice when setting bail and determining prison sentences.
- They control the plea-bargaining process.
- They can put individuals in diversion programs, rather than prison.
No one else in the criminal justice system has so many opportunities, at so many points along the way, to create better outcomes for individuals, families, and communities. But because the majority of prosecutors are elected, there’s pressure to score “tough on crime” political points by racking up arrests and convictions. And the easiest arrests are for the most minor offenses.
Politics shouldn’t trump safety. And no one should have their life ruined because of a nonviolent minor offense. Wesley Bell, a reform-minded prosecutor who was elected in St. Louis County last November, puts it perfectly:
Contact with the criminal justice system makes an individual 80% more likely to commit future offenses, and yet we perpetuate a structure that traps those who have committed low-level offenses in an unnecessarily punitive cycle that extracts harsh financial tolls and does nothing to improve public safety.
Prosecutors have the power to change this system. They can choose not to charge people for minor offenses. They can choose to send people to diversion programs instead of prison. According to one study, if prosecutors sent just 10% of eligible offenders to community-based treatment programs instead of prison, it’d save $4.8 billion. But it goes beyond savings: treatment makes people less likely to reoffend. Shouldn’t the health of communities and people be what it’s all about?
Change Is Coming
Wesley Bell had a lot of company last Election Day. A number of reform-focused prosecutors were swept into office on a promise to transform the way things are done. Americans aren’t falling for empty “tough on crime” rhetoric anymore—we want change.
For decades we’ve poured money into overpolicing our schools and communities of color, criminalized poverty, come down hard on minor offenses, and bloated our jails and prisons with people who should instead be at home with their families.
It’s time to invest in our communities and tackle the root causes of crime. We need to support prosecutors who reject the failed policies of mass incarceration and put people, not prisons, first. Remember “liberty and justice for all”? We love that idea. Join us as we work with our partners, Advancement Project and Color of Change, to make it a reality for all Americans.