Prosecutors are the most influential actors in the criminal justice system. They have almost unlimited power to push for more punishment, often in ways that are largely hidden from public view. This focus on obtaining convictions and securing severe prison sentences, instead of addressing the root causes of crime, is a major driver of mass incarceration that compounds racial disparities throughout the justice system.

  • Decades of “tough on crime” policies have given prosecutors enormous power over the system in their jurisdiction. District attorneys decide who will be detained in jail before their court date, and who will be sent to state prison. They decide what crimes to charge, and they control the plea deals offered. With 95 percent of those incarcerated having taken plea deals -- including people who have pleaded guilty to a crime they didn’t commit to avoid the risk of a longer sentence or because they were under duress – prosecutors largely control who ends up behind bars.

Prosecutors also constitute a powerful lobby and they often oppose sensible bipartisan reform efforts that would reduce incarceration and create more effective, less costly alternatives to jails and prisons.

In addition to having tremendous legal power, some district attorneys and prosecutors abuse the power of their offices. DAs like New Orleans’s Leon Cannizzaro incarcerate the victims of crimes, pressure them to make false statements in order to charge the accused with more serious crimes, and even serve witnesses and victims false subpoenas and then arrest them for not following the demands of the fraudulent documents.

To end the unconstitutional deception and jailing of crime victims and witnesses by the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, Civil Rights Corps, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Louisiana filed a lawsuit in federal court against District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and ten assistant district attorneys.

Although district attorneys are mostly elected positions, about 70 percent of DAs run unopposed for reelection. But that can change. The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice is working for prosecutorial reform in the courts, in legislatures, and through voter education. In Oregon, Northern California, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, the ACLU is leading voter education on local DA elections.

Prosecutors who support criminal justice reform can be a powerful force for making long-overdue changes to laws that would reduce mass incarceration and racial disparities. A growing number of forward-thinking prosecutors are leading the way in altering this culture and carrying out new approaches.

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