By: Sydney Meyer
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.
Frequently the butt of jokes in online forums, references to “progressive prosecutors” are often met with snickers and eye-rolls. Subreddits and Facebook groups alike bash the concept, with numerous jokes like “a progressive prosecutor will send you to prison but will also let the cops know that your dog is home alone so it doesn’t starve to death.” Clearly, some members of the legal profession exhibit a dislike for the concept of the progressive prosecutor. This blog aims to answer, “why?”
What is a “progressive prosecutor”?
Progressive prosecutors are just what they sound like: progressive. Namely progressive on social issues, many have typically been elected on platforms that include abandoning cash bail, declining low-level charges, not pursuing marijuana cases, and closely scrutinizing police conduct. Their intentions for doing so relate to their efforts to change a system that they say over-incarcerates and disproportionately punishes poor people and racial minorities. In the wake of the events unfolding over the past few years, namely the focus on racial inequality and criminal justice reform, many progressive prosecutors have found success at the polls on these stances. Many would see this shift in focus among prosecutors as a positive step down the path toward the equal administration of justice in our country. However, many others feel that progressive prosecutors miss the mark.
Why are they disliked?
These progressive attorneys are attempting to change a legal system from the inside out, which would be more effective if not for the precedent set by decades of prior prosecutors who were elected via “tough-on-crime” stances. Critics who are opposed to criminal justice reforms claim that the changes pursued by progressive prosecutors would only contribute to an increase in crime statistics in districts headed by such attorneys. Former Attorney General William Barr was vocal in his opposition to progressive prosecutors, stating that this movement is “anti-law enforcement and dangerous to public safety.” Many see this wave of prosecutors who are focused on decreasing incarceration rates and decriminalizing marijuana possession as a political statement, a sign of “radical leftist ideology” infiltrating the criminal justice system. Others choose to place their confidence in the opposing side of the criminal justice system, namely public defenders, and feel that the real progressives worth championing are those working to provide legal aid to the very people prosecutors are charging with crimes. Perhaps most damaging to progressive prosecutor’s case is the level of scrutiny these attorneys find themselves facing. Most prominently, while still on the campaign trail, current Vice President Kamala Harris proudly boasted that she was a progressive prosecutor. Many critics were quick to contradict, and pointed to her track record as both District Attorney and Attorney General in California as evidence to the contrary. Clearly under the microscope, any inkling that these prosecutors say one thing to garner favor then do the opposite in practice is especially harmful to any sincerity in their movement.
What does the future of this movement look like?
While some aren’t quick to come to the defense of progressive prosecutors, many are rallying behind the ideals shouldered by these attorneys who are focused on initiating change in their districts. With goals like decreasing the rate of incarceration, racial equality in sentencing, and holding police officers accountable in instances of abuses of power, these goals are finding traction in our current politically charged society. Despite those who may mock, there is as much a need for progressive prosecutors as there is for zealous public defenders. Both are ultimately working toward the same goal: the equal application of justice in a country that has had a rocky history of doing so up to this point. Dissuading young attorneys and law students from carrying the torch perpetuates the cycle and ensures that any change will be slow, all the while promising that more and more citizens will face a criminal justice system run by prosecutors who don’t ascribe to progressive ideals. There will always be crime. But the way our court system responds to crime should change with our societal values.