By Linhchi Nguyen
CALIFORNIA – What are progressive prosecutors and what policies should they be advocating was the topic of a live webinar, sponsored by the California Innocence Project (CIP).
The panel was moderated by Allison Temnick, one of the board members in the CIP, with CIP Staff Attorney Katherine Bonaguidi and Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) Executive Director Linda Starr joining the panel.
Their responses first reveal the massive power that prosecutors have, from filing a case and determining its charge to presenting evidence and choosing the sentencing for the convicted defendant.
“They have all the power,” Starr stated. “We get frustrated with what happens in Washington, and we get annoyed with state representatives. The real action is local, and there’s nothing more local than a prosecutor.”
She explained that once a prosecutor is elected, that really defines how a community will police themselves, which includes whether the police will be held accountable for their actions, the kinds of charges that will be pursued, and the methods used to gather evidence.
“Prosecutors are the single most powerful player in the criminal justice system,” said Starr.
Bonaguidi agreed with Starr’s point, adding that “where the discretion really lies is where the charging deputy…makes a decision on whether to proceed on certain charges or not.”
And while having large discretion can be good, as it allows lawyers to make their assessments on the unique factors of each case, Bonaguidi warned that “there’s room for them to abuse that discretion.”
Bonaguidi indicated that there has been a national movement of prosecutors pursuing progressive policies and reforms. What really sets them apart from “most mainstream prosecutors” is their advocacy on issues relating to over-imprisonment and racial inequities, Bonaguidi said.
“We know that, in California, our prison population has exploded since the 1980s,” Bonaguidi said. “We know that in California, we have spent around $15.7 billion last year on prisons, we know we have an aging prison population with people getting older and older, and we have around 30,000 people dying in prison.
“There’s plenty of data to support the over-imprisonment issue. And most progressive prosecutors are concerned about that and talking about that for a number of reasons,” she said.
The speakers pointed out that one of the main reasons for the over-imprisonment problem is that, for many years, the conviction rate has been the “golden standard” of measuring a prosecutor’s success.
However, the data has shown how that should not be the case.
“If you’re looking at measures that show a great rate of incarceration, that’s not actually a mark of success, but a failure,” Starr explained. “The idea is that you don’t want communities to have all these problems… If you look at those communities, (prosecutors) will brag at the length of sentences that they have, but they also have very high unsolved crime rates. So, they’re only pursuing certain (crimes), and their communities are still not safer.”
In fact, according to Bonaguidi, the data has shown that the longer people stay in prison, the likelihood of recidivism increases, indicating that keeping people in prison longer does not necessarily keep our communities safer.
Pointing to another example of the over-imprisonment issue, Starr showed how the war on drugs was also an abysmal failure, as it “did not get rid of drugs, did not prevent drug addiction, it did not keep us safer, it only escalated the use of weapons in drugs.”
Bonaguidi then elaborated on the issue on racial inequities, that while “nationally, our Black population is 13 percent, we have a Black population of 60 percent in our prisons.”
“Our system is racist,” Starr further emphasized. “If (prosecutors) are in denial about that, if they think ‘well yes it’s racist, but I’m not,’ if they are resistant to any kind of education about how that racism is permeating our system, then they’re not able to do their job fairly.”
In order to confront the issue, Starr believed that prosecutors need to be “uncomfortable” with the fact that more people of color are impacted by the criminal justice system and listen to community leaders on how to enact policies to fix these problems.
However, in contrast to that idea, there has been some pushback by prosecutors last October in the passing of the California Racial Justice Act, which seeks to address racial discrimination in jury selection, the criteria for evaluating intellectual disability in death penalty cases, and racial bias in criminal prosecutions.
Starr expressed her disappointment in the prosecutors’ opposition to the law, saying, “Given their enormous power in our system, they should be the ones leading the way…and intervene at every level to prevent (racism) from contributing to someone’s conviction.”
So far, Starr noted, progressive prosecutors across the country have made efforts in eliminating cash bail, creating diversion programs as opposed to sentencing people to prison, banning the prosecution of juveniles, decriminalizing petty crimes, and obtaining voting rights for incarcerated individuals.
Starr mentioned that she hopes to see further action by prosecutors on holding police accountable, however she also clarified that “there’s not one player in the system that’s going to fix what’s wrong in society.” Even so, both speakers acknowledged that a lot can be done and initiated by prosecutors.
And with that, Temnick concluded the event, thanking Bonaguidi and Starr for their wonderful insight on progressive prosecution.
To be further connected on the work of the California Innocence Project or the Northern California Innocence Project, Temnick encouraged the audience to reach out, either on their website or Facebook page. Both of these organizations are committed to providing free legal services to the wrongfully convicted and working to improve justice systems.
Linhchi Nguyen is a fourth year at UC Davis, double majoring in Political Science and English. She currently lives in Sacramento, California.
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