Tough-on-Crime Prosecutors Are Out of Step with Public Views

By Taylor Pendergrass

“Mass incarceration is a myth.” Racial bias in the criminal justice system “is the most ludicrous concept ever.” Data on sexual assault prosecutions should be kept secret because it might be “misinterpreted by the public.”

These are all real quotes from elected prosecutors, the most powerful people in the criminal justice system. There are approximately 2,400 elected prosecutors in America, and these views may well be common among them. But the public appears to be moving away from these misconceptions.

A first-of-its-kind poll conducted by the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice shows that voters of every persuasion across the United States — in red states and in blue states alike — strongly prefer elected prosecutors who are committed to reducing incarceration, tackling racial disparities, and being transparent.

Approximately nine out of 10 likely voters surveyed said that it was important for their prosecutor to prioritize alternatives to incarceration. This includes 83 percent of Republicans polled. Eighty-eight percent of voters also said they were more likely to support a prosecutor who actively works to reduce racial bias in the criminal justice system. And 91 percent want prosecutors to reduce sentences in instances where people were treated unequally because of their race. Respondents also want a prosecutor who makes a commitment to transparency, with 85 percent favoring a prosecutor who shares data and policies with the public.

The poll also reveals one major reason why “tough on crime” prosecutors get returned to office even though their extreme beliefs are significantly out of step with the majority of constituents: Many voters simply know too little about who their local prosecutor is or what they are up to. Once armed with that information, three-quarters of voters say their prosecutor is “very important”
and that they would vote for a candidate committed to reform.

To bridge the gap between voters’ values and the pro-incarceration practices of many elected prosecutors, the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice and state ACLU affiliates have joined other partners in a nationwide public education effort. There are over 1,000 top prosecutors up for election in 2018 alone. The ACLU is knocking on doors, issuing reports, holding public events, and spreading awareness online about prosecutors in California, Kansas, Oregon, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Texas, and many more states to come.

This nationwide poll sends a strong signal to the growing number of recently elected reform-minded prosecutors that voters are going to continue to support them if they follow through on an aggressive agenda to address mass incarceration and racial disparities. These results should also encourage many more reform-minded candidates to enter prosecutor elections, which are uncontested at notoriously high rates, and challenge the status quo.

These poll results promise that, with a lot of hard work, in the future a person who embraces discredited “tough on crime” policies and denies that racism permeates the criminal justice system will no longer be able to get a job as a top prosecutor, except perhaps through a presidential appointment.

Taylor Pendergrass is a Senior Campaign Strategist for the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Tia Will

    About 2 years ago, I attended the 8 week course, Citizens Academy, sponsored by the Yolo County District Attorney’s office. It was an eye opener with regard to the perspective, attitudes and policies of our local and regional law enforcement and Yolo County DA and illustrated just how much of a separation there appears to be between the perspectives of our DAs office and the majority of citizens of Davis as indicated our voting patterns.

    I strongly recommend that anyone who is uncertain about the choice of DA we will be facing attend this course.

  2. Jeff M

    The apt analogy for the modern left-tilted social justice view of crime and punishment is like them seeing a person pushed from the top of a mountain and then quickly post on the Huffington Post that law enforcement should go easy on the pusher because, as far as we know, the victim is still fine.

    In the 1990s crime WAS the social topic and thanks to Bill Clinton we started the process to get tough on crime to reduce the number of real victims.   It worked up until the recent political and media exploitation of a handful of tragic cop-suspect encounters to demand that cops stand down.  Since 2015 the overall crime rate has increased in the US.

    But the social justice left collects victim groups as a hobby, and their newest prize is the collection of criminals.  That’s right… criminals are victims!  They are mistreated by law enforcement and a judicial that is biased against criminals!

    This is idiocy.  Crime is on the rise.  This social justice left demand that we get less tough on crime has already increased the number of true victims of crime.   Instead of demanding we get less tough on crime, we need to do the exact opposite… we need MORE police officers that are better trained to be part of the community they serve.  We also need a more robust and growing economy, better schools and reduced social services benefits that fund so much leisure time where low-income people can plot their next illegal move.  (And yes, low-income people are WAY over-represented in criminal activity).

    The timing of this article is laughable given the trends.  The public view is always reactionary and thus sub-optimized for policy-making.   And with sub-par economic growth over the last decade, and millions of poor and uneducated immigrants flooding in over the last 30 years, we have swelled the ranks of those motivated to commit crimes, and they surely would vote for more weak and lenient crime and punishment.

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