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Boston’s DA nominee embraces the next frontier of criminal justice reforms: declining cases


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Boston’s DA nominee embraces the next frontier of criminal justice reforms: declining cases

  • The Appeal Podcast Episode 14: The Prison-to-School Pipeline

  • Safe injection sites are on the way. But will prosecutions follow?

  • Just 6% of Columbus police officers account for half of all use-of-force reports

  • California report details just how hard it is to succeed with a criminal record

  • Women in Congress put forward bill to outlaw shackling pregnant prisoners

  • Koch brothers associate joins ACLU supporting voter enfranchisement in Florida

  • Manhattan prosecutor dismisses thousands of marijuana cases

In the Spotlight

Boston’s DA nominee embraces the next frontier of criminal justice reforms: declining cases

Rachael Rollins, the first Black woman to win the Democratic nomination for Suffolk County, Massachusetts, district attorney, has received national attention––including from Barack Obama. She ran as a reformer, promising “a criminal justice system in which addiction, poverty, and mental illness are not criminalized” and where “a resident’s socioeconomic status and race” aren’t relevant. One of Rollins’s major campaign proposals, her plan to stop prosecuting 15 low-level offenses, has raised “skepticism and even alarm in legal and law enforcement circles.” Those offenses range from trespassing to drug possession with intent to distribute. Rollins has said her plan is not set in stone. It is “aspirational,” she said, “not a blanket commitment.” She has met with the departing district attorney and says she is eager to meet with the police commissioner. [Maria Cramer / Boston Globe]

Espousing debunked theories of criminology, Boston Police Patrolmen’s Union president Michael Leary said he’s “very concerned” about Rollins’s list; he believes that Boston’s crime rate will increase. “If you’re doing crime, you have to be held accountable for the crimes you do,” Leary said. “If you’re out there doing bad things then unfortunately jail is the answer.” He added, “It’s going to make our job harder.” Prosecutors joined in the criticism. William Fitzpatrick, president of the National District Attorneys Association, said, “I don’t think she’s properly taking into account the cost that criminals inflict on society even for minor crimes. Ignoring minor crimes leads to an increase in violent crimes.” [Alexi Cohan and Brooks Sutherland / Boston Herald]

In a separate interview, Leary seemed to imply that police would continue to make arrests. “The law is still the law,” Leary said. “And if it’s a revolving door, it’s a revolving door, but we’re still going to do our job.” [Maria Cramer / Boston Globe]

Urging Rollins to stay the course, the Boston Globe editorial board wrote that many of the offenses on her list already result in non-incarceratory sentences. And one of the main beneficiaries of the policy would be young adults, who are “impulsive, subject to peer influence, and prone to the sort of petty crime at issue here,” they write. “The data show that most will ‘age out’ of crime by their mid-20s. But if they have criminal records, it can be much harder to build productive lives when they get older. And if they struggle, we all bear the cost—whether we’re paying for social services, incarceration, or some combination of the two.” To Rollins’s critics who warn of an increase in crime, the newspaper notes, “there’s no evidence for that claim. In Chicago, a progressive prosecutor has overseen a substantial drop in violent crime. And Philadelphia has done just fine since a crusading civil rights lawyer took over as DA.” [Editorial Board / Boston Globe]

Many criminal justice advocates believe that declining to prosecute cases is among the most effective ways for prosecutors to shrink the incarceratory system and break cycles of incarceration that disproportionately ensnare people of color. Declinations stand in stark contrast to drug courts and probation, which often carry the threat of years of incarceration that are often imposed automatically for even a minor drug relapse even though 70 to 90 percent of people who try to get sober experience at least one relapse. And diversion programs, which sound good in theory, can be costly in time and dollars, and available only to those with resources. In this sense, these alternatives to incarceration are not alternatives at all. Declining to prosecute, on the other hand, removes all entanglement with the criminal justice system.

Misdemeanors are particularly good cases to consider declining en masse, in part because they tend to cause less harm to society but also because they tend to receive the least attention from prosecutors. “Once police arrest someone, it is up to prosecutors to decide whether or not to charge the person with a crime,” explains law professor Alexandra Natapoff. “The system depends heavily on prosecutors to decline cases that lack evidence. But prosecutors often fail to screen misdemeanors precisely because they are seen as insignificant, and instead charge all petty arrestees on whatever basis the police arrested them. Studies in Iowa, New York, and North Carolina reveal that prosecutors declined only 3 or 4 percent of petty offenses.” [Alexandra Natapoff / Slate]

Law professor Carissa Byrne Hessick has written a legal defense of declinations, acknowledging that a decade ago, she might have been “extremely critical” of an announcement like Rollins’s. “Just as decisions about what to criminalize belong to legislatures, I would have said, so too do decriminalization decisions belong to legislatures, not prosecutors,” Hessick writes. “But having spent time studying the relationship between criminal justice institutions,” she says she no longer feels this way. Legislatures have to a great extent delegated the scope of criminal law to prosecutors by writing overly broad criminal laws, relying on prosecutors to use their discretion. The district attorney is the one elected and empowered to make these decisions, so it makes sense for it to be an officewide policy instead of leaving it up to individual line prosecutors. To those who argue that this announcement will cause people to commit more crime, Hessick writes, she is dubious, and even if it were true, the announcement itself has benefits such as decreasing the chance of discriminatory enforcement. “Most importantly, public announcements make prosecutors democratically accountable for their enforcement policies,” she writes. “In an ideal world, I would probably agree that legislatures should make all criminalization and decriminalization decisions” writing “narrowly targeted criminal laws,” but “that is not the world we live in.” [Carissa Byrne Hessick / PrawfsBlawg]

Stories From The Appeal

Activist Danny Murillo, founder of the Underground Scholars Initiative 

The Appeal Podcast Episode 14: The Prison-to-School Pipeline. Activist and educator Danny Murillo, who was once incarcerated, discusses efforts to help incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people receive a quality education. [Adam H. Johnson]

Safe Injection Sites Are on the Way. But Will Prosecutions Follow? As the federal government vows to pursue ‘swift and aggressive action’ against the sites, experts weigh in on what’s likely to happen next. [Maura Ewing]

Just 6% of Columbus Police Officers Account for Half of All Force Reports. Between 2001 and 2017, the department justified officers in 99 percent of use-of-force cases, according to data released through a public records request. [Ethan Corey and George Joseph]

Stories From Around the Country

California report details just how hard it is to succeed with a criminal record: After paying their full debt to society, almost 80 percent of Californians with even low-level criminal records struggle to find a job, locate housing, or achieve other hallmarks of success, according to a report published yesterday. Thousands of restrictions fetter the actions and movements of the 8 million people, or 1 in 5 Californians, who have records. The report’s authors say broad and nonsuperficial reforms are needed. “When I signed my [plea] deal I was a dumb kid,” said Jay Jordan, the director of the Second Chances Program at Californians for Safety and Justice, the nonprofit behind the report. “I didn’t know I could never adopt or never coach my son’s Little League team.” Jordan is also barred from becoming a dog walker or a Bingo caller, or get a barbering or real estate license. [Megan Cassidy / San Francisco Chronicle]

Women in Congress put forward bill to outlaw shackling pregnant prisoners: A majority of Democratic and Republican women in the House introduced a bill this week that would ban the shackling and solitary confinement of women in the federal prison system during pregnancy, labor, and postpartum. It would also set standards of care. The federal Bureau of Prisons and all but six states’ correctional departments currently ban such shackling, but there is no federal law against the practice; according to reports, the practice persists even where it isn’t allowed. The law was prompted by the experience of Pamela Winn, who was pregnant when she fell hard and was unable to protect herself because her wrists were secured to her belly. Her medical requests were met with an offer of prenatal vitamins and a 12-week delay, by which time she had already miscarried. [C.J. Ciaramella / Reason]

Koch brothers associate joins ACLU supporting voter enfranchisement in Florida: Freedom Partners, a national conservative group with close ties to the Koch brothers, is supporting Amendment 4, which would restore voting rights to most convicted felons in Florida without hearings or delays. It requires 60 percent of voters’ approval, and would enfranchise an estimated 1.4 million voters. “We believe that when individuals have served their sentences and paid their debts to society as ordered by a judge, they should be eligible to vote,” Freedom Partners said in a statement. “If we want people returning to society to be productive, law-abiding citizens, we need to treat them like full-fledged citizens.” Politico has described Freedom Partners as “the secret bank” for the Koch brothers. “The Amendment 4 campaign is a genuinely bipartisan, across the ideological and political spectrum effort,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. [Steve Bousquet / Tampa Bay Times]

Manhattan prosecutor dismisses thousands of marijuana cases: This week, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance moved to dismiss over 3,000 marijuana cases dating back to 1978, and moved to vacate over 3,000 bench warrants. Of the people whose cases were dismissed, 79 percent are people of color and 46 percent were 25 or younger at the time of arrest. “By vacating these warrants, we are preventing unnecessary future interactions with the criminal justice system, and removing all of the collateral consequences for one’s job prospects, school attendance, housing applications, and immigration status associated with an open Criminal Court case,” Vance said. “And in so doing, we’re taking one small step toward addressing the decades of racial disparities behind the enforcement of marijuana in New York City.” [Kemberly Richardson / WABC-TV]

Thanks for reading. Have a great weekend.

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