When the Christian Science Monitor recently announced the advent of “a new breed of prosecutors,” the Reflective Democracy Campaign stood up and cheered. It was our data that first broke the news: across the country, 95% of elected prosecutors are white, and 83% are men. Meanwhile, black and brown people go to prison for drug offenses that white people commit with far less risk of punishment, and even as the number of women inmates has soaredsince the 1980s, the criminal justice system fails to address the history of sexual and domestic abuse endured by upwards of 85% of women who are in prison or charged with crimes.
While most of us think judges & juries make the call about who goes to prison for how long and who goes home, prosecutors have more control over the fate of suspects than anyone else in the criminal justice system. As Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson put it, a prosecutor “has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America.” Prosecutors decide when to drop a case or pursue it, and how stiff a sentence to seek — the same areas where race and gender disparities forever mark suspects, their children, their families, and our society as a whole.
The new wave of district attorneys profiled by the Christian Science Monitor is steadfastly committed to reform: “From Texas to Florida to Illinois, many of these young prosecutors are eschewing the death penalty, talking rehabilitation as much as punishment, and often refusing to charge people for minor offenses.” As notable as their fresh approach to a deeply flawed system is their refreshing diversity. Counter to prevailing trends, these reformers are a mix of women and men of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, a true reflection of America and her people, chosen by voters who pulled the lever to disrupt the status quo.
It’s hardly a coincidence that women and people of color are among the leaders of a reform movement marked by thoughtfulness and balance. Every system is enriched by a diversity of viewpoints and experiences, and the criminal justice system, in particular, benefits when the people making decisions have first-hand insight into the lives they’re affecting. While we’re well aware that people’s demographics are just one factor in how they view the world, it’s a factor crying out for more attention. Because the evidence is irrefutable: as the criminal justice system becomes more reflective of our country’s demographics, it also becomes more responsive, humane and just.