By Miriam Aroni Krinsky and Tyler Yeargain
Last week, Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón — the head of the largest DA’s office in the nation — resigned from the California District Attorneys Association (CDDA), the association of prosecutors in the state, noting that the organization has “lost touch with the public its members are elected to represent and serve.”
His resignation highlights the troubling reality of prosecutor unions and associations, which have largely escaped the scrutiny that police unions have faced in recent years. Tethered to past “tough on crime” thinking, these organizations have acted as powerful obstructionists of reform.
Gascón’s platform embraced several groundbreaking concepts, including ending the use of most sentencing enhancements in order to reduce lengthy prison sentences, which fail to keep communities safe and often increase the risk of future crime, at enormous cost to taxpayers.
But immediately after Gascón took office, opponents of reform sued to halt implementation of the very policies the people of Los Angeles County elected him to carry out. In a move that could potentially limit the discretion of their own elected prosecutors, CDAA filed an amicus brief supporting the challenges and interjecting itself into the lawsuit.
As Gascón’s notes in his resignation letter, while voters in California have welcomed change, CDAA has a long history of blocking data-backed criminal justice reforms. And sadly, this exemplifies a broader trend: the position of many prosecutors’ associations around the country that there is only one acceptable way to prosecute cases—as harshly as possible.
Prosecutors’ associations came to prominence in the 1960s, and have become key players in the “tough-on-crime” criminal justice establishment. As the “War on Crime” gained ground, they won plum positions as members on advisory boards and commissions that guided state policy in these areas. With this newfound influence, the associations lobbied for tougher and tougher laws — and consistently opposed reform efforts.
Today, associations function as modern police unions do, reflexively supporting their members’ positions. But tellingly, this lockstep defense stops when DAs seek to scroll back past punitive approaches.
In Florida, when State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced that she wasn’t going to seek the death penalty, then-Gov. Rick Scott took away all her death-eligible cases. Ayala filed suit and the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association not only wasn’t on her side, they actually supported the governor’s erosion of its members’ discretion in an amicus brief that embraced the dangerous precedent of limiting the autonomy of elected prosecutors.
Likewise, when the Pennsylvania state legislature stripped reformer Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office of the exclusive ability to prosecute some gun crimes, giving the state attorney general the concurrent power to pursue these cases, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association had little interest in defending DA Krasner’s autonomy.
Prosecutors’ associations aren’t always opponents to change.
In Missouri, as Gov. Mike Parson and the state legislature repeatedly attacked St. Louis City Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner for her reform efforts, the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (MAPA) defended her against efforts to let the Attorney General intrude on her jurisdiction. It argued that these efforts “erode the ability of local voters to decide who will seek justice on their behalf should they be victimized by crime.” In other circumstances, however, MAPA has been as regressive as others in seeking to block reform. But in this instance, they recognized the critical fact all prosecutor associations should acknowledge: their opinion doesn’t trump the choice of voters.
As the criminal justice reform movement takes hold in our country, voters are embracing local prosecutors committed to advancing a new starting point. Reformers have been elected nationwide, reflecting the ideological diversity and preferences of our communities.
It’s time for prosecutors’ associations to respect the decision of voters and accept the evidence — failed punitive approaches are not the path to justice, and these groups must stop undermining voters’ desire for reform.
Miriam Krinsky is the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution and a former federal prosecutor. Tyler Yeargain is the associate director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. Article originally appeared in the Orange County Register.
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