WASHINGTON — As part of its effort to achieve a 50 percent reduction in the U.S. jail and prison population, the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice today announced a new multi-year initiative to overhaul the power wielded by prosecutors. District attorneys are major drivers of mass incarceration, lacking accountability and transparency, and posing obstacles to criminal justice reform. The ACLU's initiative includes a series of high-impact, locally driven prosecutorial reform campaigns in a number of states across the country, beginning in Philadelphia where #VoteSmartJustice is underway to educate voters about the district attorney race in the May 16 primary. #VoteSmartJustice is working closely with the ACLU state affiliate and on-the-ground advocates to pursue litigation, legislative advocacy, and nonpartisan voter education — a model that other prosecutorial reform campaigns will follow.
“We will never truly transform our nation’s criminal justice system and end our addiction to mass incarceration until we hold prosecutors accountable,” said Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice. “Prosecutors are the most powerful, unaccountable, and least transparent actors in the criminal justice system. This new effort seeks to not only rid our justice system of bad actors who exploit and abuse unchecked powers, but also to elevate and empower a new generation of prosecutors committed to reducing incarceration. Particularly during the era of President Trump and Attorney General Sessions, the nation needs local prosecutors who will stand up to unjust federal initiatives and build a smarter and fairer criminal justice system.”
Approximately 3,000 prosecutors throughout the country are responsible for making decisions that affect the lives of millions of people. The public knows too little about prosecutors and their impact on communities.
Although the mandate of prosecutors is to advance justice, many district attorneys have focused on punishment at any cost. This approach has increased the jail and prison population; led to sentences that are too severe for the offenses; produced more wrongful convictions and more death sentences; and sent people with addictions, disabilities, and mental health conditions into jails and prisons who should receive treatment or other social services instead. These consequences of unchecked prosecutorial power burden people of color and the poor disproportionately.
To redirect prosecutors’ focus towards reducing mass incarceration, the Campaign for Smart Justice will use its prosecutorial reform initiative to pursue a series of high-impact, locally driven efforts. Together with the ACLU’s state affiliates and on-the-ground advocates, the initiative will follow a three-prong strategy:
- Litigation: The initiative is hiring new litigators to file ten lawsuits aimed at holding prosecutors accountable and changing their policies and practices.
- Legislative advocacy: The initiative will serve as a clearinghouse for prosecutor reform legislation, actively supporting the passage of key reform measures in ten states.
- Voter education: The initiative will engage in nonpartisan efforts in ten prosecutorial elections, conducting voter education about the role that local prosecutors play in fueling mass incarceration.
The first of the initiative’s efforts is underway in Philadelphia, where the Campaign for Smart Justice is working closely with the ACLU of Pennsylvania to conduct an aggressive voter education effort before the May 16 primary. Dubbed #VoteSmartJustice, this effort has trained dozens of canvassers, most of whom are formerly incarcerated individuals advocating for criminal justice reform, to blanket neighborhoods throughout the city to inform voters about the election and underscore the importance of holding prosecutor candidates accountable for their records. Among the people to be targeted are the 11,000 ACLU members who are registered to vote in Philadelphia.
“Pennsylvania has the highest rate of incarceration in the Northeast, costing taxpayers $2.5 billion on prisons in 2015 alone,” said Reggie Shuford, of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The impact of that staggering high incarceration rate is felt the hardest here in Philadelphia, and prosecutors have been a major driver of that reality. This campaign will ensure voters are equipped with information about where the candidates stand on critical issues, and encourage them to demand that, in exchange for their support at the ballot box, candidates must commit to using their power responsibly, fairly, and justly.”