A Philadelphia DA just won an election based on an ultra-progressive platform to end mass incarceration. Philly is notorious for employing some of the toughest criminal justice policies (1 in 10 juveniles nationwide serving life sentences without the possibility of parole were sentenced in Philly.) Campaign promises from the new DA include; abandoning cash bail for non-violent offenders, no longer pursuing capital punishment, and not bringing cases based on illegal searches. The new DA won with 75% of the vote.
This is a good start. 87% of inmates are housed at the state and local level, and prosecutors are the unilateral gatekeepers in these systems. Any future reduction of the prison populations would inevitably have to involve reforming prosecutorial behavior. Prosecutors decide who goes to prison on what charges and for how long. For all the traction mass incarceration reform has generated, prosecutors have avoided any of the spotlight as the culprits of exploding prison admission rates. Prosecutors are granted nearly unlimited discretion to act and their decisions usually aren’t reviewable. This dynamic partially explains why incarceration rates have been growing over the past twenty-five years as crime rates have been dropping.
It’s painstakingly clear to critical observers that confronting the role of prosecutors must be lexically prior to any other reform-minded goals. But perhaps the more logical response is abolition.