Former Prosecutor Touts 2018 Reform as Key to 2024 Prosecutor Shortage Crisis

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By Vy Tran

NEW YORK CITY, NY— In 2022, Phillip Villanueva, having served two decades of his sentence of 25 years to life for stealing from a doughnut shop with a “third strike,” was released because of a 2018 law called prosecutor-initiated resentencing (PIR), according to Slate.

PIR is a form of “second-look” legislation that enables prosecutors to revisit old cases and propose revised sentences to the court for current prosecutors to look back and review for appropriate sentencing, said Slate, noting attorneys such as Hillary Blout believe PIR is imperative in remedying the current crisis plaguing the justice system in 2024: the nationwide prosecutor shortage.

According to Slate, the prosecutor vacancy remains an increasingly-prevalent issue leading into 2024. Since the murder of George Floyd, law students, on top of the general public, view public defenders, not prosecutors, to be “on the side of justice.”

However, Blout, a former prosecutor, has doubts about this growing perspective on the incarceration system, noting, “Although some may cheer the shrinking scope of law enforcement officers. The shortage crisis may ultimately have a negative impact on reform efforts: If you want more reform, you actually need more prosecutors processing cases.”

Because of the PIR process, prosecutors meticulously review cases, considering factors such as a person’s life before prison, how they have spent their time in prison, and their plans to reenter society, according to Blout.

This has helped cases for the accused like Phillip Villanueva. After participating in rehabilitation programs such as “substance recovery, conflict resolution, mentorship, and training service dogs for veterans,” he is now a forklift operator, a community mentor for local youth, and a husband, reports Blout.

The PIR, according to advocates like Blout, encourages the justice system to look at cases more holistically than ever before, but with dwindling numbers of elected prosecutors reported by SSRN to carry out this policy, there are fewer available to safely bring more people like Villanueva home. 

According to these statistics by SSRN at the end of 2023, more than 15 percent of prosecutor positions are open in Houston and Los Angeles, 20 percent in Detroit, 25 percent in Alameda, and a “staggering 33 percent of prosecutor positions are unfilled in Miami.”

“In the past five years, I have worked to advance this area of law,” said Blout. “Today, five states—California, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, and Minnesota—have enacted PIR, resulting in nearly 1,000 people resentenced and given a second chance at freedom.”

Blout added, “The process is favored by prosecutors because it centers victim input, rehabilitation, and public safety, making it a balanced and holistic reform.”

PIR does more than giving people a second chance. Blout argues, maintaining this type of reform builds “stronger communities with present parents, new taxpayers, and good neighbors.”

Additionally, Blout said in Slate, PIR as a whole can redirect substantial taxpayer funds toward crime prevention measures such as substance abuse recovery, education, child care, and mental health support.

In some states, according to Slate, it costs $132,000 a year to incarcerate one person.

Blout said they are engaging future attorneys through law school clinics, fellowships and internships to broaden law students’ understanding of prosecution and reveal prosecutors’ power to effect change on the front end and the back end.

“At the core, this challenges the adversarial nature of our criminal justice system,” Blout writes, adding, “I have seen several such attorneys shift career paths toward prosecution after interacting with PIR and similar innovations early on in their careers. It (can) encourage people who might otherwise not see themselves in these roles—first-generation college students, people of color, and women—to consider prosecution as a means of ensuring justice.”

About The Author

Vy Tran is a 4th-year student at UCLA pursuing a B.A. in Political Science--Comparative Politics and a planned minor in Professional Writing. Her academic interests include political theory, creative writing, copyediting, entertainment law, and criminal psychology. She has a passion for the analytical essay form, delving deep into correlational and description research for various topics, such as constituency psychology, East-Asian foreign relations, and narrative theory within transformative literature. When not advocating for awareness against the American carceral state, Vy constantly navigates the Internet for the next wave of pop culture trends and resurgences. That, or she opens a blank Google doc to start writing a new romance fiction on a whim, with an açaí bowl by her side.

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