They come fresh-faced from elite law schools, leather briefcases unscuffed and starched white shirts, ready to “do justice” by putting the bad guys where they belong. Some leave after their commitment. Some remain for the duration of their career. They’re prosecutors and they believe that what they do is both right and necessary.
But the closest they ever get to the life of a defendant is a social distance away in a courtroom. For years, I’ve urged that every new prosecutor spend a week in prison, eat Nutraloaf and stare at walls when they aren’t dodging an angry guy with a tattoo across his forehead that says “kill.”
Some prosecutors make their babies spend a day observing life in the slammer, so at least they know the smell. Yet, they will never know the tearful eyes of a mother or child, the vision of a life without options, the fear of losing yet another job as they are told to appear for another 30-second adjournment or else. The choice of having to use one’s last dollar to pay for subway fare to court instead of bread for the kids.
It’s not that I’m an apologist for bad dudes, and there most assuredly are bad dudes out there, as I remind the unduly passionate regularly. They’re not all extras in Les Misérables. But some are, and they find themselves at the bottom of the criminal barrel, the poor souls charged with vague misdemeanors, often over and over, for living at the fringes of society. These aren’t the killers, but the pathetic, and these well-intended baby prosecutors have never met such people, never seen this underbelly of humanity that doesn’t live in ivy-covered dorm rooms or fraternity houses.
Progressive prosecutors have been elected to office, some like Larry Krasner in Philly, who knows the people, has seen their world and understands what their life is like. But he walked into an office filled with prosecutors wearing rep ties who could never see what he experienced. And as he walked in, they walked out.
“We hear prosecutors say a lot, ‘I’m not here to do social work,’” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, who leads justice reform work at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York. In Philadelphia, Larry Krasner, one of the highest-profile progressives, took office as district attorney in January 2018. Three months later, 84 members of his staff had quit or been asked to resign.
“It’s great to have someone at the helm,” Ms. Eisen said. “But Krasner may be D.A. for four years. Career prosecutors are there for 20, 30 years. Something’s been missing from this movement.”
Putting Larry Krasner’s head on the district attorney’s body doesn’t mean all the prosecutors in the office will suddenly see the light. Or more to the point, see the light the way Krasner sees it.
As with the police, the union has the strongest anti-reform voice. “If your motivation is to make the system more efficient, effective and fair, you will get tremendous support from your assistants,” said Duffie Stone, president of the National District Attorneys Association, essentially the union for prosecutors. “If your motivation is to destroy the system, you’re not going to see that. We’ve seen some assistants leaving newly elected prosecutors’ offices because the agenda was reform for the sake of dismantling.”
Activists attribute malice and racism to unwoke prosecutors, just as they do to anyone else who hasn’t awoken to their ideology, but fails to change anything, persuade anyone or do more than push prosecutors further into their own righteousness hole. Prosecutors see themselves as serving the public good, protecting the victims of crime who come from the same neighborhood, suffered the same burdens and yet didn’t steal or beat or sell crack to survive. Why, prosecutors ask, are these people forgotten when you’re busy crying tears for the people who committed the crimes?
And so the lines are drawn, the sides are separated and the line prosecutors who believe in their cause, just like the new progressive prosecutors believe in theirs, remain unmoved. But maybe it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, and even old dogs can learn new tricks, that all defendants aren’t mutts.
Adam Foss, a former assistant district attorney, is trying to fill the gap.
In 2016, Foss started Prosecutor Impact as a way to introduce a working understanding of reality on the poor, brutish streets to the rosy-cheeked guardians of law.
The network also took the prosecutors to visit the Marion Correctional Institution — not for the standard walk-through with prison officials (Mr. Foss calls it the “see, it’s not so bad” tour), but to talk to prisoners about their lives. “A lot of people were moved by the prison visit,” Mr. Klein said. “Folks realized the impact on defendants and families, and the role prosecutors can play in changing the dynamics.”
One of the weirdest things for a prosecutor to realize is that defendants are actual people. Some better, some worse, but people. It’s easy to be cold to a perp, but it’s harder to be harsh to a person. And then they went through a “poverty simulation.”
Each staff member was assigned the profile of someone living in poverty. In that role, they visited stations around the room: employer, utility company, pawnshop, grocery store, payday lender, child care facility. They faced problems: Do we skip paying the water or electricity bill? Seeing my probation officer requires taking three buses — I can’t make it after work. I’ve been fired because I missed three days while in jail, and with my criminal record, I can’t get another job.
Not every defendant can, or should, be “saved.” Not every defendant’s story is heartbreaking. Sometimes the dots can be connected, but still don’t excuse the harm he caused some other person whose dots look the same.
But many can be saved, and the ability to distinguish defendants who aren’t criminals, who don’t have to commit petty crimes to survive, could be an epiphany to a prosecutor whose beliefs, whose career, has been dedicated to not seeing the flip side of his actions and choices.