The single most important person to reform the criminal justice system is not…
The President of the United States
The Attorney General of the United States
The Head of the FBI or CIA
The Speaker of the House
The Senate Majority Leader
Any of the 50 State Governors
Any of the 50 State Attorney Generals
The Head of the NAACP or the ACLU
The Dean of any Law School
The State or Federal Head of Prisons
The Head of the Democratic or Republican Party
Your Local Mayor
Your Local City Council President
The Editor in Chief of Your Local Paper
Your Favorite Rapper
Your Favorite Athlete
Your Favorite Artist
Your Favorite Writer or Journalist
Your Favorite Filmmaker
Your Favorite Actor or Actress
Your Favorite Social Media Personality
A Major Tech CEO
Nah, it’s none of them. It’s not even your local sheriff or police chief.
Now, don’t get me wrong — if we got all of those people truly caring about reforming our justice system from the inside out, then we’d have so much momentum that we’d be an unstoppable force for radical reform.
All of those people are influential. All of them can tinker with the justice system in one way or another. Some can influence it from the outside and others from the inside.
But there’s somebody who has more influence over the criminal justice system than anyone else. I don’t even feel comfortable with just how much power and influence this person has. You’ve probably heard me say it before, but over the next few years you are going to hear me say it almost every single day.
It’s your local prosecutor.
In most of the nation, they’re called District Attorneys or DAs for short. Some states call them the Commonwealth’s Attorney. Other states and districts call them the State’s Attorney — it’s all basically the same role. It’s the elected prosecutor for your city, county, or region, depending on where you live.
On Thursday, I am going to be announcing a pivot to shift all of my organizing energy into the efforts to upend this system. No single position has more power or influence to radically change the game on criminal justice than your locally elected prosecutor. As a leader in this space, I’ll be doing a few things:
Helping to build a national DAs database to not only help you identify your local DA, but to assess their positions on a broad range of issues, as well as provide you with information on the important dates you’ll need if you want to join the race, vote in the local political primary, or vote for your local DA in the general election.
Sadly, in most cities, including my own right here in New York, DAs often run completely unopposed and do so with little to no turnout or fanfare. In Brooklyn, which would be one of the largest cities in the United States if it stood alone, the winner of our DA’s race, Eric Gonzalez, needed just 77,000 votes to win. We have nearly 3 million residents. Last fall, Manhattan DA Cy Vance ran completely unopposed. After the deadline for new challengers passed, we learned that he had made shady deals to decline prosecuting Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka, and even Harvey Weinstein. Vance coasted to his third term as DA.
All of this is by design. No position in the entire country has more power, more juice, more influence, with less scrutiny and attention, than the District Attorney.
But those days have to come to an end.
In addition to building a comprehensive database, we will begin helping to recruit exciting new candidates for local DA races. We will be mounting a nationwide awareness campaign to help encourage reform-minded attorneys to enter the fray to change the justice system from the inside out.
And lastly, we will work directly on the campaigns of those candidates to ensure they get elected. And that’s where so much of the real work is. DAs’ races are an afterthought in America. On the lists of election-night results, you have to scroll and scroll to even find the prosecutorial races. We must take each and every one of these races out of the shadows and bring them into the light.
Right now, the United States has more than 2,400 elected prosecutors. They are the gatekeepers of the justice system. More than 9 out of every 10 people who enter the justice system do so through this group.
Even though the United States is more diverse than it’s ever been, on our way to becoming a majority nation of color, over 95 percent of all elected prosecutors are white. This alone is ridiculous.
Listen, white isn’t evil and black isn’t righteous. I’m not saying that, at all, because I know a few sorry black prosecutors and a few amazing white ones, but it’s outrageous that any field, particularly a field that primarily targets and convicts people of color would be 95 percent white. This is a scandal all by itself.
Secondly, an astounding 83 percent of all prosecutors are men. When it’s all said and done, of the 2,400 elected prosecutors in the United States are tallied, only 1 percent are women of color. And that’s all women of color, not just black women. Again, this is travesty. It’s utterly preposterous.
And it’s at the root of so much that is wrong with America’s justice system. We’re not just talking about race, or the color of someone’s skin, we’re talking about culture, we’re talking about perspective, we’re talking about relationships and history, we’re talking about upbringing and language and relatability. It’s no wonder that our criminal justice system looks the way it looks when we consider who is at the helm.
The race, culture, and gender gap between America and its prosecutors must be closed.
But we’re nowhere near making that a reality right now. Most of us cannot even name our local prosecutors. We damn sure don’t know the dates of the primaries and who’s running.
Our criminal justice system is amazingly complex. We have over 18,000 police departments nationwide with over 1.1 million full-time employees. We have more than 6,125 jails and prisons in this country and that doesn’t even include ICE detention centers. Our nation has so many laws, well into the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, that no true count even exists of how many laws we have.
Over the past few years, out of necessity, most of us who are pained by injustice in America have moved from crisis to crisis. It’s often felt like our house is on fire. As we reel from one awful incident of police brutality or corruption, we are then hit with another. And when your house is on fire, it’s hard as hell to worry about policy and elections — you’re just trying to survive and save your loved ones.
Listen to me — I don’t regret a single march or protest. I don’t regret a single tweet or Facebook post about injustice. I don’t regret a hashtag or an article I’ve written exposing injustice in this nation. All of those things were absolutely necessary. We raised awareness of a crisis that we all knew was real and experienced on a local level, but we had no idea it was as bad as it is nationally. Most of us had never even heard of Ferguson before this movement. Police brutality, police corruption, and the prosecutors that go out of their way to defend such things were well known both inside and outside St. Louis, but our movement takes local pain, local injustice, and makes it national and international. This is a huge part of what we’ve accomplished. Books and documentaries have been made. The world is now aware — and this is good, but that awareness, sadly, did not bring any justice to the families of Eric Garner or Mike Brown or Tamir Rice. That awareness did not bring any justice to the families of Freddie Gray or Philando Castile or Alton Sterling.
And here’s what I know: If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll keep getting what we’ve been getting.
We can either pivot and change some of our actions altogether or add some new actions on top of the old ones. Either way, it’s time for something new.
For me, this means I will be diverting all of my organizing efforts into radically changing the face of the nations 2,400 elected prosecutors. It’s a mammoth task, but an absolutely essential one. Listen to me — together we have juice. We have influence. We have potential. And I need you to understand that leveraged potential is power. We have to leverage our potential and influence in new ways or we will look back on this time as a period of great demonstration and great frustration, with very little to show for our efforts. I’m not OK with that and I know you aren’t either.
We’ll need you to join us.
You’ll hear more from me on Thursday