Nearly All District Attorneys Are White—And That’s a Huge Obstacle to Fighting Mass Incarceration

Liz Posner, AlterNet, January 24, 2018

The issue of mass incarceration is well-documented, and in some states, at least, local laws are starting to catch up. But one area of the justice system where progress has been much slower is the election of local district attorneys, who remain overwhelmingly white and tend to be conservative in their upholding of regressive and outdated laws.

Even in blue cities like Philadelphia and Los Angeles, progressives have criticized DAs for decades for sticking to conservative tough-on-crime, “lock ’em up” tactics. But 2018 could bring a wave of left-leaning local candidates who view justice differently. {snip}

The Reflective Democracy Campaign reports that of the more than 2,400 elected district prosecutors in the U.S., 95 percent are white and 85 percent regularly run unopposed. Just 1 percent of prosecutors are women of color. Certainly, this number could shift later this year, as a record-breaking number of women are expected to run for office to combat Trump’s retrogressive social policies. All but four states in the nation have elections to choose their area’s DAs.

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For decades, DAs have enacted punitive, harsh sentences and have been responsible for the millions of prison sentences that make the U.S. the keeper of 21 percent of the world’s prisoners. While those laws, and the lawmakers who voted for them, are certainly to blame, conservative DAs who uphold the laws without concern for reform must share responsibility.

Luckily, many are working to change the face of American district attorneys. The recent Prospect article details several organizations that are working to help reform-minded candidates get elected. Fair and Just Prosecution brings its network of nationwide DAs to “move beyond incarceration-driven approaches” and promote equity in law enforcement. As the American Prospect writes, it’s “meant to connect newly elected district attorneys with more experienced DAs who can help them navigate common challenges.” And the Fair Punishment Project has, in partnership with the ACLU, recently turned its attention to raising local awareness about the impact DAs have on their communities.

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Nonwhite women are so rare in this position that those who boldly seek reform within their counties get national attention. {snip}

The importance of having nonwhite DAs can’t be overstated. Black Americans are imprisoned at five times the rate of whites. {snip}

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2016 saw a major launch of investment into backing a wave of diverse DAs. American Prospect identifies George Soros as the financial force behind the wave of activism around diversifying America’s DAs:

“In 2016, Soros spent more than $11 million on 12 candidates through various super PACs; ten of them won. He spent $1.4 million in support of Ayala, who ran successfully against the incumbent state’s attorney for the district covering metro Orlando. He also set up PACs in the Harris County election and for Foxx in Chicago. In 2015, he pumped more than $900,000 into a rather obscure DA’s race in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, helping elect challenger James Stewart. He also spent nearly $1.5 million on Krasner’s candidacy in Philadelphia’s Democratic primary. … Soros’s Open Society Foundations gave the American Civil Liberties Union a $50 million grant to launch its Smart Justice campaign, which includes a goal of ten victories in key DA races.”

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