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Prosecutors Use Their Power to Help Reform Criminal Justice

Prosecutors are using their power to reach beyond the courtroom to reform the country’s prison crisis and usually much more effectively and efficiently than lawmakers could do.

Last fall, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner began working to reverse prosecutorial practices in the city that led to the highest incarceration rate of any major city in the United States. On his third day in office, Krasner fired 31 career prosecutors and told the rest to stop insisting on cash bail for minor offenses, such as possessing marijuana. He also released over 50 people being held on marijuana possession charges and announced a new drug policy: As long as people are not going to sell the drugs they possess, his office will no longer file charges.

In 2016, philanthropist George Soros bankrolled a dozen reform candidates for prosecutor positions across the country. Ten won. Since then, several major city prosecutors have chosen to use prosecutorial discretion to reform the system from within. Combined with prosecutors, like former Dallas County DA Craig Watkins, who created a “conviction integrity unit” to investigate wrongful convictions, and the late Ken Thompson, who became New York’s first black DA in 2014 and exonerated 21 people in the two years prior to his death, they can extend their power beyond the courts to encourage and effectuate reform.

But these sorts of prosecutors are an anomaly. The country’s 2,400 prosecutors have long been the drive behind prison overcrowding and the high incarceration rate of blacks. Today, more than 2 million people sit in U.S. prisons and jails, costing taxpayers $87 billion a year. Some prosecutors are stepping up to fix the problem. 


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