There are some really important elections happening this year—but because it’s a presidential election year, you might not be hearing about them. Don’t get us wrong: The presidential campaign is really important. But local races often have an even bigger impact on our day-to-day lives.
Local races like the one for prosecutor. Do you know who your prosecutor is and what they do? Prosecutors play a huge and influential role in the criminal justice system, but most of us don’t really know much about them. Well, we’re here to help!
Here are five big reasons you should be paying attention to the race for your local prosecutor.
1. Prosecutors determine how and whether to charge someone with a crime
After someone has been arrested, prosecutors (also known as district attorneys in some jurisdictions) determine which crime to charge that person with, or whether to charge them at all.
2. They have a lot of power when it comes to setting bail
You probably already know how we feel about money bail. Most people in jail are there only because they can’t afford to pay bail, turning “innocent until proven guilty” into something more like “guilty until proven wealthy.” Prosecutors can change that. They can actually stop using money bail.
3. Prosecutors control the plea-bargaining process
Controlling the plea-bargaining process might not seem like too much of a big deal, until you find out that something like 97% of federal and state cases are settled that way—which means that most of the time, prosecutors, rather than judges or juries, are deciding someone’s guilt. That’s an enormous amount of power for any one person to wield.
4. They can put the brakes on mass incarceration
Decades of “tough on crime” policies have resulted in powerful prosecutors expanding mass incarceration (a failed, racist policy that doesn’t make us safer). But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we want to end mass incarceration and invest in our communities instead, there’s one big thing we can start doing right now: Elect reform-minded prosecutors. Prosecutors can decline to prosecute or recommend alternatives to incarceration, like putting individuals in diversion or treatment programs.
5. Most prosecutors run for election
Yes, prosecutors are powerful and, yes, they often tend to wield this power out of the public eye. But prosecutors are elected in all but five states, which means that we get a say in how our criminal justice system is run. And if we want the system to change, then we need to get out there and vote for reform-minded prosecutors.
Who Are Prosecutors?
Take a look at that list! Clearly, prosecutors have an enormous amount of power in our criminal justice system. No one else has more opportunities at every step along the way, from just after arrest to sentencing, to impact people’s lives. But who are they?
- They are 95% white and 83% male.
- There are more than 2,400 elected prosecutors in this country, and only 1% are women of color (14 states have no elected prosecutors of color at all).
- Most prosecutors are elected but, according to a big new study, they regularly run unopposed (especially in low-population areas) and incumbents almost always win reelection.
If you suspect the fact that the overwhelming majority of prosecutors are white, male, and unconcerned about facing any opposition on Election Day might result in a criminal justice system that’s biased against people of color… well, you may be on to something.
The System Is Racist
Studies show that Black men regularly receive longer jail sentences than white men for the same crimes. Statistics also indicate that while Black people and white people use illegal drugs at similar rates, Black people are imprisoned for drug crimes almost six times more often. The examples go on and on. Systemic racism is alive and well in the criminal justice system, and it’s one of the big reasons why the US has only 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population. And it’s why people of color make up 60% of our prison population but only 30% of our overall population.
Electing reform-minded prosecutors could dramatically change this picture. Because of their power and influence in thousands of jurisdictions all over the country, prosecutors are the key to improving outcomes for nearly everyone ensnared in the criminal justice system, as well as for their families and communities.
Let's Reform The System
To end our mass incarceration crisis, we need prosecutors who will choose not to charge people for minor offenses. Who will decide to send people to diversion programs instead of prison. (If just 10% of eligible people were sent to treatment instead of prison, it’d save $4.8 billion AND strengthen our communities.) Who will eliminate money bail. Who will help shut down the school-to-prison pipeline. Who will guarantee that in America, we are all truly innocent until proven guilty. And we need to elect prosecutors who reflect the diversity of our country so that we can root out and eliminate systemic racism.
How do we make this happen? We just have to show up. We join Color of Change’s movement to keep prosecutors accountable, then we show up on Election Day and cast our ballot for the prosecutor who best reflects the values that matter to us. Nearly 2,300 prosecutors are up for election in 2020. Find out more about your local election, then get out there and vote!